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.