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 . . .