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.