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.