Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dec. 13

Waiting. Doing a lot of it lately. For the officials from el municipio to come connect the water lines; for los oficiales y inginieros del EmelNorte to string the wires para la luz across the 3 eucalyptus posts I put in weeks ago. And, at the moment, waiting for Carlos, the roofer. Carlos always says 1pm, or 7am, but he really needs to attach :45 to whatever hour he promises. For now, I am grateful for the brief respite, my body exhausted from weeks of some of the hardest physical work I´ve made it do in years, and my brain somewhat frazzled from learning a whole new vocabulary of construction terms and from weeks of making decisions about materials and design.
Despite all the waiting we are making some progress. I am spending money at an alarming rate (and not earning any at the moment,) but I knew ahead of time that this would be the case while putting on the roof, which I think (hope) will be the most costly part of the construction. Carlos is a local carpenter, and he builds very nice and very simple furniture. He also does a more than passable job with doors and windows, and I will have him make all of mine. Roofs, however, are not his specialty, as I am finding out, and I´ve made some major changes in the design of the house in order to get Carlos on his way as quickly as possible without hinting that he seems to not know what he is doing and without hurting his feelings.

All of my roofing lumber (vigas) were cut from a massive old eucalyptus tree about an hour up in the mountains from here by Carlos´ brother Rene. Using only a chainsaw, Rene cuts the vigas to length (3-4 meters) and roughly squares them up out in el bosque. Then he hauls them (80 – 110 lbs. apiece) one by one on his shoulders down from the woods and into the bed of his old truck. He brings them to Carlos´ taller, where they are planed down to their finished dimensions, then loaded back on the truck , and then again on his back, for the trip up to my house. I tried to shoulder one of the shorter pieces and nearly crumpled under the weight. I am a full foot taller than Rene and outweigh him by 50 pounds, if not more. The strength of every man woman and child who is helping me on this project is simply mind boggling.

So, to make a long story short, lumber can be somewhat hard to come by here in Cahuasqui. When mistakes are made or when you find you may have miscalculated, you face either a long wait or a long trip to Ibarra to try and make it up. Imagine my chagrin when Carlos ruined 2 beautiful vigas by erring egregiously in his measurements and cutting the birds´ mouths (with the chain saw) a good handspan from where they needed to be. According to Carlos, to say the vigas are “ruined” is a bit strong, after all “we” can just cut off the bad parts and bam!, good as new - - except of course that they are now rather short and will not serve their intended purpose, a fact that Carlos does not really want to talk about. I tell him that in the US, when I frame a roof, or anything else for that matter, if I make a mistake (and I´ve made plenty) then it is my responsibility to replace, out of my own pocket, the wood I have butchered. His eyes grow wide and his face tightens as he considers what I am saying. I am not asking Carlos to do this of course, because he is poor enough already as it is, but I do take a few moments of perverse enjoyment watching him try to grasp this awesome concept of taking responsibility for mistakes.


Carlos was to meet me in town after lunch, but he didn´t show. I walked up the hill and found him at the house, working along with his brother Segundo and his son Estefan. There were 2 sets of vigas in place up on the roof, and while not perfect, and really not even very good, they will do. Certainly they are far better than the first attempt made yesterday.

Carlos´ sister-in-law Anita is also working up at the house, helping to clean teja. She has become very concerned about my estado civil (marital status), and claims to be a little worried about my living up here on la loma without a mujercita to cook or clean for me, and to take care of the place when I am not around. But what really worries her are the mumias, fantasmas, y duendes who will come to haunt me every night. According to locally accepted folklore my land and house are up on a tola - - a kind of lookout hill constructed by either the Incans or the Caras. In years past a few pieces of ancient pottery, both large and small, have been found up here, along with a smattering of human remains, including the skull we found within the first hour of our excavations around the house. When I showed the skull to Anita she gasped “dios mio” and crossed herself several times to make sure the evil spirits will stay away from her.

All the rest of us had a nice laugh at her expense, and Anitas´ husband Segundo suggested that I find a very ugly woman to marry, one who can not only cook and clean but who can also keep the ghosts at bay. I told him I would keep an eye out for just such a woman . . .

Thursday, December 2, 2010

odds and ends

Odds and ends, in no particular order.

Cahuasqui 5 PM. Oct 31. Up at the house en la loma. It´s a beautiful day, and I´m punching 10 inch diameter holes through the 2 foot thick rammed earth walls to see just how hard it´s going to be to put a few windows in the place. Right now there are none;imagine generations of the same family living in a house almost continuously for almost 100 years and never once thinking “hmm, a window over there might be nice.” Well maybe they did think about it, who knows. Perhaps so many hours were spent outdoors in the daily routine that when sunset came it was a relief to go inside, shut the door and forget about the damned fresh air, the sun, the heat, the cold, and the rain for a little while.

Down below in town the weekly soccer game is in progress, the rivals to the locals having come in by bus from Pablo Arenas or Urcuqui. The sound system as usual is blaring away, and everyone up and down the entire valley is at this very moment listening to “Call Me” by Blondie. I wonder who chooses the music at these things. . .

Ibarra 6.30 AM Oct 1 - The day after the “attempted coup” and I am in the Ibarra bus terminal on my way to Natabuela to work at the hogar de los discapacitados. President Correa has made his triumphant return to the palace and given his rousing and defiant speech, denouncing the striking police and as well his political foes. In the “battle for his release” from the police hospital 4 or 5 young men have been killed, several more badly injured. Correa calls them heroes; he takes no responsibility for the series of events and his own provocations which led to this senseless, and some say choreographed, violence. In Guayaquil, Quito, and throughout the country dozens if not hundreds of stores have been looted, banks robbed, automobiles burned or overturned, etc. etc. Correa, standing late last night on the balcony of the presidential palace - with large screens, cameras and sound systems somehow, mysteriously, already in place - pounds his chest and vows to punish those responsible. . .

The terminal, normally bustling at this hour, is quiet. Wafting sweetly from the overhead speakers, heard only by a few and likely understood only by me, comes a poignant lament from the band REM - “Everybody Hurts.” So true, on this particular morning.

Salinas de Guaranda 1.30 AM Nov 5 - Someone is ringing the church bells. The Padre is out of town, in Ambato, so I figure that one or two of the local delinquents or borrachos are out having a lark and a laugh - but the peal of the bells is so sweet and soulful, totally without malice, honestly one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. On and on it goes, or so it seems in my half awake state, and before the mysterious bell ringer tires of his folly I drift back off to sleep.

A day later there is an afternoon mass. A matriarch of the town, 90 years old and whose name is unknown to me has died the night before, about 20 minutes before the sound of ringing bells gently roused me from my sleep. And although it is not at all original, I found myself for several days thereafter recalling lines from John Donne “never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

November 5 2010
And now, all of a sudden, I find myself back in Salinas de Guaranda for a few days. 150 miles from Cahuasqui as the crow flies, the trip consumes almost 10 hours in bus. Today was a very bad travel day, 2 accidents on the Panamericana north of Quito, and to the south heavy and slow traffic, leftovers from the week of feriados to celebrate el dia de los santos y el dia de los difuntos.

I hadn´t planned to return here until mid or late December, but I received a phone call telling me that two separate groups of potential project funders will be coming from the US and Austria this weekend. So on short notice I very reluctantly left Cahuasqui and made my way here. Hopefully all will go well over the next few days and we will end up with some thousands of dollars to build a few more greenhouses . . .

Talking to the Padre this evening upon my arrival he noted that it might be difficult for me “to have my heart in two places”. I assured him rather quickly that my heart was fully in Cahuasqui, but that it held in it a special and very warm spot for Salinas.


And it´s true. I´m very happy to be maintaining a relationship with Salinas and my friends and co-workers there. At the same time, little by little, the realization that I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, o algo como asi, (or something like one) is dominating my thinking. I am ready to move on to building a life of my own here in Ecuador, with a place I can call home and a little piece of ground to take care of. While in the US for 3 months this past summer my thoughts were, almost daily, of mi casita propia, a little garden and a few chickens wandering around on the front porch. I am ready, at the ripe old age of 55, to settle down. At least for a while, anyway.

The life of a Peace Corps Volunteer is a good one, if you take it seriously and make earnest attempts to do the job you are charged with. What exactly is that job, well that´s a good question. For your first 6 months you think your job is to save the world, and for the next 6 months you more or less lock yourself in your room brooding and wondering why you have failed. With luck, on the first day of your second year, you open your door, let some of the mustiness escape, then walk outside and say “the hell with saving the world, I´ve got to save myself!” And then you get to work, and 12 months roll by like nobody´s business and you find yourself ready to stay. Maybe for another 6 months, maybe a year, maybe a lifetime.

Which is more or less what happened to me, except that I really did not sit in my room brooding for 6 months. Although for a while there my consumption of cheap rum did increase precipitously . . .

So I completed my 2 years of service, traveled a little, then returned to Ecuador and got a job here in Salinas, and it was almost like being back in Peace Corps all over again. As much as I like being a “do-gooder” after a few months I began to realize that enough is enough . . . I wanted my own life, my own schedule, and most importantly, work that I had total control over, inasmuch as that is possible. Enough of waiting for meetings that never happen, enough of sitting through interminable meetings that do happen, enough of depending way too much on other people to care as much as I do, enough of just about everything.

Entonces, I bought my little piece of land in Cahuasqui with a house built of straw and mud sprouting from the ground like a great extension of the earth, ready to plant and rebuild, ready for some chickens, a rocking chair and a refrigerator full of cold Pilseners. Ready to eke out a living, on my own terms . . .

And here I am again, in Salinas de Guaranda. Where we all sit around the table together for breakfast, lunch and dinner, talking in Spanish and Italian and French and English about lofty goals and likely impossible dreams. Where a room and a comfortable bed have been set aside for my exclusive use, whether I show up once a month or once every 6 months, and quite frankly at the moment is the closest thing in the world I have to a home, at least until I get my little Cahuasqui house in livable condition.

So maybe my heart really is in 2 places, as the Padre suggested a couple of days ago. And maybe that´s not so bad, after all.

The US funders, (potential funders that is), have come and gone. Mostly Rotary Club members, they were a friendly bunch of people and I think we might have a chance to make use of some of their money some where down the road. The Austrian contingent arrived on their heels, and I gave them my little song and dance late this afternoon, with a repeat performance scheduled for tomorrow. During my presentations I found myself talking up Cahuasqui, and as my lips continued moving I was startled to hear myself suggesting that perhaps one day they will have the opportunity to visit and consider funding some projects that my friends and I are considering for Cahuasqui and environs . . . Dammit, still acting like a Peace Corps volunteer – and again, maybe that´s not so bad, after all.

Monday, November 1, 2010

24 de octubre

Fever,headache and chills. Just 2 days ago I was marveling at how good I felt, just goes to show ya . . .

Back in Ibarra after a week in Salinas and another week of visiting friends and some side trips outside of Riobamba. Salinas was very cold, and as I was packing light was totally unprepared for it. When the sun did come out it was as spectacular as always . . . but mostly it was cold.

One day while in Riobamba I hopped on a bus to parts unknown, one of my favorite things to do. My destination was a small pueblo called Alao, at the foot of the Sangay National Park. There were no direct busses, so I caught one to Licto, and then hiked the several kilometers to Pungala, where I had heard I could catch a bus on up the valley to Alao. The weather was clear and cool as I hiked down the sendero from Licto to the bridge where it looked like I could connect to the road to Pungala.

After 20 minutes or so of slipping and sliding down the loose rocky footpath I made the bridge, and as I slogged back up the steep highway to Pungala, passing by a small hydroelectric plant and a Catholic sanctuary, it began to rain. Luckily my friends in Riobamba had insisted I take a raincoat with me so I reached into my pack and grabbed the trusty thrift store jacket my son Joe had brought for me a couple of years ago. My god I was glad to have that raincoat! As I climbed the temperatures dropped and the rain poured, and when I arrived in Pungala the only thing I could think about was a cup or two of very hot coffee.

Now, as I have no doubt mentioned before, Ecuador is a country full of friendly people. And on this particular day it appeared to me that the friendliest of them all live in Pungala. I drifted into town, feeling like the first gringo to ever lay a boot on the brick paved streets. Of course I wasn´t, as it turns out a young Peace Corps volunteer from New York City lived there for 2 years back around 2001. I learned this from the first person I encountered in Pungala, after inquiring about a cup of coffee. Mariano is a storekeeper/pharmacist who runs a little botiquin, selling 10 cent bags of snacks, 25 cent bowls of chochos and on occasion an aspirin or two. After first inviting me to stay at his house for a few nights (I thanked him and suggested I would stay with him and his family on my next visit to Pungala), Mariano took me by the arm to the little bakery across the street and ordered la dueña to boil some water for un cafecito. We returned to the botiquin and while we waited the half hour for the coffee to be ready we talked of life and the obvious advantages of living in Ecuador as opposed to anywhere else in the world. Well, according to Mariano anyway, who has never been anywhere else in the world, but who does go to Quito every now and again. Midway through our conversation Mariano pulled out his cell phone and had me call the former Peace Corps volunteer, a young woman whose number was on his speed dial. I did, and left her a rambling message in English saying that I was also a former Peace Corps volunteer who had just happened to wander into town and that Mariano and his family wanted to say hello and that they missed her and hoped she would come visit soon or at least call to say hello . . . I wonder if she did.

From across the street the bakery lady called out to say that at last my coffee was ready and I took my leave from Mariano. La dueña, a very round and pleasant woman, sat me down at a table and brought me my coffee, along with a couple of hardboiled eggs and some rolls. We made small talk for a little while and when I was ready to leave, and to pay, she refused me, saying that this was comida de la amistad, a meal of friendship. I argued weakly, and solved the dilemma by convincing her to sell me a bag of cookies and a few pieces of pan for the road.

I still had an hour or so to kill while waiting for the one o´clock bus to Alao. The day had warmed up and dried up, so I stuffed my raincoat back into my pack and wandered around town, which took all of about 8 minutes. I returned to the botiquin where Mariano and I ate cookies and bread and solved all the worlds´ problems until the bus came.

A weekday bus around noon or 1 PM in Ecuador is not usually where any sane person wants to be because they are very often jam packed with about 100 students, give or take, returning to their homes in outlying communities after a grueling academic day of playing soccer and marching in place. My bus to Alao arrived in Pungala already packed to the gills, with about 25 kids on the roof and 6 or 7 more clinging to the ladder. I muscled my way into the bus, and as we slowly got under way an old woman who had a seat pulled at my pocket and told me that she was getting off soon and if I acted fast I could have her seat. So the moment she made a move to stand up I maneuvered my ass into position, and was ready to violently block any one of the little urchins who had ideas of beating me to the seat. Fortunately all went smoothly and I settled into the seat, opened up my sack full of cookies and bread to share with the 10 or 12 kids nearest me who were plastered together like sardines, and we all headed up to Alao, becoming more comfortable along the way as the bus stopped every 40 seconds or so at some random sendero to discharge a kid or two. I imagine many of these kids had another hour or so of walking in front of them, because until we reached Alao I saw only 2 or 3 houses dotting the rugged countryside.

Alao was cold and rainy, very green and very beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Salinas de Guaranda, except that Alao has the advantage of a relatively large and relatively clean river passing through it. This rio is known for its trout fishing, and someday, when I go back to visit with Mariano and his family in Pungala, I hope to get a chance to wet a line and try my luck.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Almost 3 weeks now since I have been back in Ecuador. I´ve made a few attempts to write something interesting here on the blog, to no avail. And this short entry will not win any prizes, but maybe it will break the ice . . .

Not that life hasn´t been interesting since I´ve returned. A few wonderful days wandering in Quito; time spent catching up with friends in Ibarra, Ambuqui and the Chota Valley; riots by the police; a suspected (and suspicious) “coup attempt”; 9 days I´ve spent volunteering in Natabuela (just south of Ibarra) at a home for children and adults who are mentally or physically handicapped where I cleaned up vomit and shit, spoon fed breakfast and lunch to those who couldn´t feed themselves, changed bed linens, and took the children who were able out for long walks in the countryside, built a small greenhouse and oh yes where I cried a little but laughed everyday maybe as hard as I´ve ever laughed in my life.

Last but not least, I bought a small piece of land called “la loma” in Cahuasqui. There are still a few scraps of paper to sign and a few dollars left to exchange hands, but it´s a done deal. It´s small, only about an acre, with a 100 year old rammed earth house (in need of repair) and 360 degrees of some mighty fine views. In November I´ll get up there for a few days to plant avocado trees and to figure out how to tackle the remodeling project.

Today I reluctantly leave Ibarra, which has regained its standing as my favorite city in Ecuador, and travel to Quito and then Riobamba (formerly #1). By the middle of next week I should be back in Salinas de Guaranda, where I will find out what they have for me to do down there.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Today was one of those rare days when just about everything goes about as good as it can go. I will be leaving Ecuador soon, for a few months, and in recent days have been wrapping up my workload. Almost daily trips to Verdepamba, Pambabuela, and other communities to check on existing greenhouses and to check measurements of those still pending. Today was spent out in the plaza here in Salinas cutting plastic, doling out seed and compost, and answering a ton of questions about just about anything.

Some of the gardening questions are so basic - - how do I plant this seed? When will I know when it is time to harvest? I am always surprised by these queries until I remember (again) that almost none of these campesinos have any experience at all in growing vegetables. How could they, after all, living in the paramo at 4000 meters, or more?? Nothing grows outdoors except paja and some scrubby stunted potatos.

Our project has been wildly successful in terms of numbers. With a budget of 10,000.00 dollars we have overseen and helped in the construction of 150 family sized (5 meters x 8 meters, on average) in-ground greenhouses. The project goal was 100 greenhouses in one year, we’re in the 8th month, 150 and counting, and there is still about 1000.00 dollars in the account. That was the easy part. The hard part lies ahead – teaching people. Not just how to plant a seed, but how to imagine the unimaginable, how to make possible something that seems impossible. How to experiment, how to accept failures as part of a process and not as an excuse to quit trying something new. We might need more than 10 grand for this part . . .

I try to imagine telling a group of people in the US -- “OK, listen up! We, your benevolent benefactors, are going to give you – absolutely free! – a big piece of plastic so you can build a greenhouse and grow vegetables – absolutely free! - All you all have to do is dig a hole in the ground, 16 feet wide by 24 feet long, and 5 feet deep. Then you have to cut some trees or find some wood to make a frame for the plastic --- y nada mas!! After that, we will give you – absolutely free! – this big piece of plastic worth about 50 dollars!! Whaddaya say – who`s interested??¨

I am pretty sure 100% percent of my imaginary audience would call me a madman, or worse, and leave the room, sorry they had wasted an hour or two. Here, it is a different story. The enthusiasm and energy of the people is so . . . so . . . pure. Unaffected. Honest. I don`t know what to call it. It is something, I think, that I have never known - - maybe something that many if not most of us have ever known. How lucky I am to see the light in the eyes of a man or woman who cannot even sign their own name, as they head back, usually on foot, to their communities 2 miles, 4 miles, 6 miles away, with a big piece of plastic strapped to their back. Happy, they are.


I`m happy too, about my coming trip “home”. Is the US home to me still? Yeah, I suppose it is, but I am also very happy to have a return ticket to Ecuador for September. Slowly but surely this is becoming home as well.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

From the journal of Henry David Thoreau 22 January 1852: “But why I changed? Why I left the woods? . . . to speak sincerely, I went there because I had got ready to go. I left it for the same reason”.

It`s not the first time I`ve thought I`m ready to leave Ecuador. Some days I think about it all day long. And sometimes weeks or more will pass and the idea never crosses my mind. There`s no particular reason, really, it just feels like it’s time to go. Will I go? Don`t know yet. If I do, where? Well, most likely back to the US, where I hope to earn a few dollars to fund another year or two here. Will I come back to Ecuador? Yes. Soon.

All is well here. I love my work, I like the town I live in, ma o meno. But I want to see my kids, my brothers, my nephew and a handful of old friends. I want to drink good beer, and I want to go somewhere to hear good live music. I want to play with power tools, go for a walk with my dog, and float in a canoe. I want to spend a few days or weeks framing a wall or a house, and I want to hang some drywall and then tape it, mud it, and paint it. I want to drive down a long straight highway with the windows open and the radio blasting. I want to be somewhere for a while where it doesn`t get dark at 6.30 every night of the year. Go to a baseball game . . . eat pastries at The Hungarian Bakery in Manhattan and then wander around the Cathedral of St. John the Devine . . . just to a name a few of the things on my list . . .

Salinas was recently in fiestas. 5 days straight of marching, dancing and drinking. A cattle show and bullfights and cockfights too. On the main square huge piles of freshly cut green pine were stacked daily, and each night gallons of kerosene or other combustible was poured on, a few hundred matches applied, and after a smoky beginning in about 45 minutes there was a roaring bonfire. Bottle rockets and fireworks went zinging about in each and every direction, and some of the best entertainment was had watching people spin and jump and dance to escape a wayward projectile. In a normal universe at least half a dozen people every night would lose an eye, or suffer burns of some degree or another – but a small town party in Ecuador is anything but a normal universe.

There have been at least 4 major fiestas here in Salinas since January; Fiesta de los Tres Reyes in January, Carnaval in February, fiesta de San Juan Bosco in March or April, and the fiestas of local autonomy and national independence are the ones we are all still recovering from. Come to think of it, it would pretty accurate to say that Salinas is always “recently in fiestas”.

By the fourth night of this latest bout I had had enough. I live just off the main square, and each night had bandas playing until 5 or 6 en la mañana, entertaining the few borrachos who were left standing and annoying the hell out of the rest of us who were trying to sleep. Ecuadorean party bands deserve a salute, not necessarily for their competence as musicians but rather for their endurance. These guys will march into town the first day of the fiesta, (already playing) and continue virtually nonstop until the crack of dawn. Then they will march out of town (still playing), their sad shuffling syncopated music trailing off behind them . . . and then 2 hours later they are back! And as good as new! It`s really something. Something awful.

So I did the only reasonable thing and got the hell out of town . . . up to the sleepy and peaceful little pueblo of Simiatug. The silence and tranquility was pure pleasure – I went to bed about 8 PM (nothing much in the way of nightlife up there) and slept straight through until dawn. I stayed for the day, worked in a friend`s garden and took a beautiful hike. I returned to Salinas that night, the last night of the fiestas, to find that the stuttering rhythms of the banda had been replaced by an incredible high energy salsa band. The green pine fire lent a smoky and sultry haze to the plaza, people were dancing (really dancing, not just shuffling) the moon and stars were shining brightly, and the music ended at about 11.30. Perfect . . .

Monday, April 26, 2010

a meeting in Pambabuela

It`s dark. It`s raining and muddy. I step out of the truck, not paying attention, and my right foot is ankle deep in a puddle. I swing my left foot in a wide arc, and reach a slightly less wet spot. Samuel, Hugo and I climb the concrete stairs to the meeting room, which is in the same building as the little nursery school. There are 3 bare light bulbs hanging from a ceiling that is not quite 6 feet high. Hugo and Samuel laugh as I crouch down to make my way to the meeting table. We are right on time – the meeting starts at 7PM. Not surprisingly we are the only ones here. At 7.10 a man walks in, wrapped in a colorful shawl and sporting a derby hat and rubber campo boots. “Most of the people will come at about 8:30 or 9” he says. Samuel and I look at each other and roll our eyes. Samuel, who is Ecuadorean, surprises me by saying “but the meeting is supposed to start at 7”. Our host smiles and says “But Samuelito, you know that the people are always late, they are accustomed to it”. So we wait.

It is cold, and damp. I have not dressed warmly enough. Hugo, unbelievably, is in a t-shirt. He claims to not be cold but I think he’s lying – he’s from the jungle for cryin’ out loud. Samuel grew up here – he’s never cold. We kill some time chatting, and then decide to figure out where to plug in our computer and projector for our 5 minute slide show. We find a few sets of bare wires hanging along one wall and our friend with the derby hat and rubber boots casually wraps the bare wires around the prongs of the extension cord we have brought. I heard somewhere once that electrical shock is the leading cause of burns and amputation in Ecuador. I try to figure out one good reason why someone doesn’t think it would be a good idea to install one or two 80 cent receptacles to the wall. I can`t think of any.

There is a wooden floor, warped by moisture. In some places the low plywood ceiling sags precipitously, probably due to the weight of bird and rat droppings. The walls are dirty and could use a good washing and a new coat of paint. On the far wall, near the entrance, someone has painted a picture of indigenous children dancing with Sylvester the Cat. I’m pretty sure that’s who it is. On another wall someone has painted “Bienvenidos estrellas brillantes del futuro!” – welcome, shining stars of the future! I am cheered by the optimism of whoever put it there.

Around 8 PM a few people come straggling in, mostly women, and they are knitting as always. I am pretty sure they knit in their sleep. (I asked a woman once how can you knit so fast and well without even looking? She told me she had eyes in her fingers.) Twenty minutes later, there are about 25 men, women, and children, and 2 or 3 dogs. Samuel and I are ready to do our thing and go home, but we are told we need to wait for el presidente before we can start. So even the head man doesn`t show up on time . . . that explains a few things.

The first thing the president does is tell us we are in the wrong meeting. Tonight is the meeting for agua potable – the general meeting for the community is next week. Since we are here to talk about greenhouses, which have nothing to do with drinking water, we will have to come back next week, for the general meeting. Samuel begs, as only an Ecuadorean can, to please allow us 10 minutitos, no sea malito, por favor. The boss capitulates, and we rush through our presentation, promising to return for a more thorough discussion next week, at the general meeting. The wires are unwrapped from our cords, we pack up, and everyone laughs as I stand up and hit my head on the ceiling.

Back in the truck, Samuel looks at me, smiles a tired smile, and says, “ah, mi pobre Ecuador”. “Tranquilo, amigo, esta bien, I reply. Esta noche nos sembramos una semilla, en la próxima vez vamos a poner un poco de agua”. – No worries, friend, it`s OK. Tonight we planted a seed, next time we will give it a little water –

He started the truck and we drove, through the drizzle and the fog, back to Salinas.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

10 April 2010
Rain has come to Ecuador en abundancia. The coastal regions are knee deep in water, trash and excrement. TV news is full of footage of landslides, washed away houses, schoolbooks floating in dirty pools of water and children swimming in what used to be the town park or plaza. Here in the mountains we have had 2 weeks of rain, chill and gray skies. Until today. Today was one of those glorious days that come way too infrequently, as far as I am concerned. The kind of day where children and dogs can`t help but be frisky, the kind of day where everyone loses a layer or two of clothing, the kind of day where kindness overflows and everyone has a smile on their face. The blue sky, the emerald green of pastures and fields, a hot bright sun – makes a fella glad to be alive.

My daughter Anna came for a short (too short!) visit recently, and of course it was a treat to have her here. We spent a few grey days here in Salinas, then headed off to the beach at Puerto Lopez, where we caught a break and had a string of hot and sunny days. I had all kinds of plans to do some day trips to la Isla de la Plata and the beautiful beach at Las Frailes, but once we hit the hammocks on the beach at Puerto Lopez it was all over. We spent 3 days and 4 nights doing nothing; it was perfect. Well, we didn’t exactly do nothing . . . we ate just about everything in sight and passed plenty of time reading and playing cards and putting away sufficient quantities of rum, usually mixed with coconut batidos. I have been threatening for many years to treat myself to a month on the beach – Puerto Lopez may be just the spot to do it.

It was raining the morning we left, we took a chance and caught an early bus to Guayaquil where we had a late morning flight to Quito scheduled. We got to the airport by the skin of our teeth, and were back in Quito in time for lunch. We strolled through the park and Quito´s Centro Historico, and later ate at one of my favorite restaurants, the aptly named “Great Indian Restaurant”. It really is. The next morning we got up before dawn, went to the airport, and poof, just like that, she was gone. I like going to airports to meet people, but hate going to see them off.


24 April 2010
Right on the heels of Anna`s visit came my Ohio friends Colin and Lori – their third visit to Ecuador (maybe they like it here?). I met them in Ambato and they came up to Salinas for 5 days of meandering and relaxing, accompanying me from time to time to my work sites, but also spending a lot of time in front of the hostal’s fireplace. Together we went to Baños for some warmer temps, hiking, and massages.

In addition to their usual cargo of good booze and lots of snacks Colin and Lori also packed down a chainsaw bar and 2 chains, as well as what is surely the heaviest laptop ever built, a Compaq Presario that is destined to take the place of my beloved but slowly dying Dell Latitude. Anna also brought me down a little netbook, which has its limitations, but is great for carting around from place to place. Here I am in the middle of Ecuador, with more technology than I know what to do with . . .

I have managed to get some work done in the past weeks, despite all the fun and sloughing off that comes with visitors. I completed the constructions of the small new greenhouse at the hogar feminino and now all that`s left to do is plant something in it. After that we will build a hot bed and a chicken coop - - hopefully all adding up to a small food production system for the girl`s home and the attached day care center. My own greenhouse is providing us with copious amounts of produce, enough for the hoards who eat at the communal table and some left over to sell to a couple of local restaurants. No tomatos yet, but plenty of espinaca, lechuga, brocoli y zuqini.

`My own` greenhouse is not quite accurate – I don`t own it. But I did build it, and I take care of it. I frequently take anyone interested up to see it, mainly to impress upon them the importance of intensive cultivation in a greenhouse – but it also serves as my own little sanctuary, somewhere to go when I don`t feel like speaking Spanish or just need a few moments alone to think about something. It has an advantage over my room - - it is almost always warm.

Although every day brings something new, my role here is becoming clearer, and I am liking my responsibilities and the level of freedom I am allowed in carrying them out. I am trying (hopefully succeeding) to bring a higher level of . . . scratch that . . . I am trying to bring any level of organization to the greenhouse projects, which up to now have been managed rather - - loosely. Poor people here in Ecuador are so accustomed to paternalismo – which is (very generally speaking) a way in which the rich and their governments keep the rabble in line – a little handout every now again to ease the pain of hunger, poverty, servitude, etc. - that any program that offers a freebie, such as ours, is jumped on. Our program doles out 54 square meters of greenhouse film worth about 45 dollars – and the idea is that we will provide technical assistance to anyone who signs up and agrees to excavate (usually by hand) the rather large hole in the ground that will serve as a greenhouse. Unfortunately, up to now there has been little oversight and even less technical assistance. Which means there are many plastic covered holes in the ground – a few of which are producing small amounts of produce – many others which are used for drying clothes, or worse yet, vacant.

So, as we try to improve the utility of the program we are now working in one community at a time, giving handouts and slide shows (when there is electricity) and then, most importantly, going to each individual site to help plan and layout the greenhouse. As opposed to the old way, where someone came into the office, signed a slip of paper, and left with a piece of plastic. Give me a few weeks to see how we do.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mas cerca del cielo

FEB 1, 2010
Salinas de Guaranda – same country, different world. 3600 meters, about 11,800 feet above sea level. Green – oh so green, compared to Ambuqui and the Valle de Chota. Locals tell me that it is usually much more so, but the drought that is affecting almost the whole country has apparently taken its toll here as well. I don`t know – if it gets any greener my system may not be able to take it. It`s chilly here, relatively speaking. Especially on cloudy days, or when we do have a little rain. Night time temps fall to around 40F, sometimes just a tad lower. Daytime temps range from 50F to 80F, and when the sun shines, well the air just sparkles with light and solar radiation, and if I forget my hat my balding head and my face burn in about 15 minutes.

I am here to work, but so far am unsure of my responsibilities. It`s kind of like being a Peace Corps Volunteer all over again. Ostensibly I am to head up a yearlong project to build greenhouses and native tree nurseries in Salinas and a dozen or so outlying communities – ranging from high altitude paramo at 4000 meters or more down to the subtropics, at 8-900 meters. The project is funded in part by CARITAS International and their rep from Switzerland is coming for a visit next week, so I hope by the time he has gone we will all have a handle on the thing. The project I am working on is being managed by the Salesian mission, a group of Catholics who have been in Ecuador for - well I have no idea how long – but for many many years. The Salesianos are just one of many sects of Catholicism active in Ecuador and throughout South America. Some I suppose are carrying on in the tradition of the conquistadors, others perhaps are here to make amends . . .

After years of living alone, and liking it, I now find myself in a communal living situation, and am a little surprised to find it enjoyable. Adjacent to the iglesia, in the centre of town, is the “casa de padre antonio” – and in fact it is the home of Antonio Polo, an Italian priest who has been here for almost 40 years. He is largely responsible for the fame Salinas enjoys as a producer of fine cheeses and chocolates, projects initiated by him and others in the 1970`s that have grown into very profitable enterprises. The “house” is a conglomeration of sleeping quarters and a large kitchen where anywhere from 4 to 15 of us (ecuadoreans, italians, etc.) take our meals together. Some of the rooms are shared, I am lucky enough to have private quarters. The offices of the “Fundacion Familia Salesiana” are immediately adjacent and connected by a hallway; so there is always movement, conversation, and general hub-bub. There are days when I crave a little privacy, but for now it is a good situation.

March 1, 2010
Padre Antonio is an intense and charismatic man, and he possesses a keen and active mind (at times maybe a little too active). I enjoy his company and am only mildly annoyed when he bests me (every time) in pingpong – despite the fact that he is, at 71, 16 years older than I am. “Don`t worry”, he says, “you`re still young, you`ll get better.” After visiting Salinas last November to preview the work, I told the Padre that I would accept the contract – but my current visa was to expire in February. He told me not to worry, that the Fundacion could procure a 2 year missionary visa for me. I told him that would be great, except that I am neither Christian nor Catholic, that as a matter of fact I am an atheist . . . “no problem” he replied, making the sign of the cross, “you`ll be a misionero de buen corazon” . Hell, I can do that, I thought, and we shook on it.
Pingpong is one of the favorite activities of the kids here, and some of them are quite good. There is also a music room, with drumset, guitars, and local instruments. We often have short impromptu jam sessions, and sometimes it even sounds good. Salinas sees a fair share of tourism, Ecuatorianos and extranjeros, and from time to time I may spend an hour or two with a group to explain our projects. The dynamism and energy here is a far cry from the languor and indifference of Ambuqui, and although at times I miss the lazy warm days there I am enjoying the fullness of the days here.