Monday, September 10, 2012

Mornings break and nights fall quickly this close to the equator. Work days start early, at first light, for in the dry season which we are now in the blazing intensity of the sun drives many of us indoors during the middle afternoon. “Us” being those, like me, who somehow through design or dumb luck have the luxury of controlling our days as best we can, filling them, or not, as we see fit. The others, the not “us”, find their patches of shade or a cool corridor and take only a short mid-day break to eat a lunch of rice and beans, washed down with weak tea or tepid coca-cola. If time permits, a short rest, and then a reluctant return to whatever it is they are toiling at - - here in Cahuasqui, usually fieldwork. Spraying, planting, irrigating, harvesting, 12 months of the year. To protect from the sun the workers cover themselves, despite the day’s warmth, with long sleeved shirts buttoned at the wrists and broad brimmed hats. The men wear long pants and boots - some of the women as well choose the same, while others wear more traditional long and heavy skirts covered by an apron.

Ocassionally, and usually only when I want to, I find myself outdoors during these hottest and brightest parts of the day, tending to my trees and gardens. I wear shorts, and sandals, and tank top t-shirts. Passersby, if there are any, joke that I will always be white, never beautifully coffee colored as they are. Of course they are right, but I’ll keep trying nonetheless.

Far more likely during the mid-day I am indoors, working on the house, wiring a circuit, painting, or trimming out windows and doors. Truth be told, I am just as likely to be reading or napping in the brightly colored hammock I have hung from a pair of roof beams.

Shortly after four PM the angle of the sun has lowered and the light changes from brilliant blazing white to more tranquil and friendly hues of orange and gold. The gusty winds calm and I wrap up my indoor tasks (or naps) to return outdoors during this, my favorite part of the day. Watering is the main objective now, to replace that moisture that has been lost during the day. It is also a perfect time to set out young seedlings, in order to give them at least a night of settling in before facing tomorrow’s scorching rays and drying breezes. With each passing minute the illumination changes, the mountains east of me softly lit and the mountains west of me now massive shadowy outlines. My own shadow looks to be 10 times my actual height.

The blue skies fade to dusky reds and purples, temperatures drop. I put on long pants, and shoes. By 7 pm, every night of every day of the year, the light has left us. On a clear moonless night such as tonight the vastness of the dark sky is quickly filled with stars and galaxies and who knows what other mysteries. The chickens have quieted, and in the distance dogs begin their plaintive barking at unseen and imagined intruders. In a few hours they too will quiet down.

A few times a month when the spirit moves me I will build a small fire in the pit out front of the house. Sometimes I cook my dinner over the fire, other times I happily enjoy the fire for its warmth and it´s invitation to simply sit and stare, perhaps to ponder all the usual questions about life and love and the like.
The village of Cahuasqui lies quietly below, the church steeple lit up for the evening Mass. Not far from the church new floodlights light up the soccer field, and voices of playing children waft gently up the hill to my ears. Across the quebrada is Pablo Arenas, its own brightly lit church shrouded in a fog bank creeping up from the valley. Looking farther east across the valley I can see the shimmering lights of Huacar, San Vicente de Pusir, and even Mira, 15 miles away as the crow flies. So close, it seems - - yet if I want to go to Mira I will need to travel for 3 hours.

Circling from east , to south, then west and north, the hills are emptier – lone houses sprinkled here and there, a few scattered small communities - - Palaga, Pugaran, Guanibuela, La Florida. The boonies, to be sure. Large fires sometimes burn in the mountains, a nasty holdover custom from the old days when the indigenous believed that great fires and their resulting humo would bring rain during a dry season. Smaller fires burn as well, but these are usually managed and meant to clean up an irrigation ditch or sendero.

My own little campfire fades to embers, the earth keeps on spinning, and tomorrow is another day.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Don Arturo is one of my favorite guys in Cahuasqui, and his sister Guadalupe is one of my favorite gals. Guadalupe is married to Juan, another favorite, and they have 2 young daughters. The little one, Angela, is mentally and physically handicapped. I pass by their house frequently because they sell 15 cent homemade chocolate ice cream on a stick, and to spend a few minutes chatting with them all is always a very pleasant diversion. Juan dotes on both of his daughters, but especially little Angela. Every morning he throws her up on his shoulders for the hike into town to buy huevos y pan. He used to take his daughters around town on his moto until he saw a TV news story about a terrible accident where a little girl fell off her father’s moto and was run over and killed by a car following behind. He says he will never take them again, at least not until they are big enough to hold on by themselves.

Juan’s brother in law Arturo is a slightly built man who spends much of his time hiking in the mountains and picking up odd jobs in farming and masonry whenever he needs plata. He also raises “finos” (fighting cocks) and if he is lucky sometimes he will make a little money from their efforts in the ring. Of course sometimes he and especially the chicken are not so lucky . . .

A few weeks ago Arturo came by my place to say hello and to see how I was coming along. He had a huge fighting chicken in his arms, and 2 of his dogs were trailing along. I invited him inside, he made the dogs stay out but carried the big chicken in with him. We looked around and chatted, and after a while it was time for Arturo to go. As we headed to the front door the chicken grunted and then let go of an unbelievable amount of loose and wet chicken shit all over the concrete floor, which I had just painted about 2 weeks prior . . . I made some remark in Spanish about not knowing that a chicken could shit so much all at one time. Arturo, in all his magnificent innocence and naivete simply said “y ahora?” which in this case meant, “and now what?” It never in a million years would have occurred to him to put the chicken down and offer to clean up. Nor would I have wanted him to, because it would have compounded the mess by a factor of at least 10, probably 20. I told Arturo, “no se preocupe,” I’ll take care of it. Arturo tipped his cap, called his dogs and said “ bueno, Don Roger, entonces que tenga un buen dia” - - “well then Don Roger, have a great day” - - and he was off. I sighed, shook my head and chuckled, then got out a bag of sawdust and soaked up the worst of it, and rinsed and cleaned the rest the best I could.

The floor is still stained, but it makes for a good story to explain why when visitors come a calling.

- - -

This summer has been long and dry, much more so than last year. We have had no measurable rain since April, and the locals believe it will be late September or even into October before we see it. Nevertheless, we all watch clouds gather in the distance and make small wagers, those betting against rain always winning.

Like everywhere else in the world, local small farmers are suffering. Don Lucho came by last weekend to pay a visit, and I have never seen him looking more down. “6 months of work down the drain,” he says. “Our bean harvest will not even cover expenses, let alone put food on the table.”

Lucho had been working in Spain making good money as a carpenter for almost 10 years when the “crisis” hit Europe and the construction market tanked. He regularly sent money home to Ecuador to support the family he had left behind. As the work dried up in Spain, he decided to move back to Cahuasqui and to start farming the family land with his 2 brothers. He has lost at least 20 pounds since coming back, and now appears downright gaunt. Even during the relatively good harvest of last year he and his brothers, after splitting the profits 3 ways, had hardly two nickels to rub together.

“One, or all of you, have to go to Ibarra and get a job,” I tell Lucho. “For the small farmer anywhere in the world it is almost impossible to make a living these days from farming alone.” Lucho agrees, but admits that he is spoiled by the good things here in the pueblo and hates the idea of working all day in a store or office. I understand him perfectly.

My own garden has suffered from the lack of rain, and I’ve decided it makes no sense to plant anew until the drops begin to fall. Between the wind and the sun it is a two to three times a day battle to keep young seedlings alive, and I am worn out from it! I have planted a few new trees, limes and oranges and a few more avocados, but they and their much larger root ball have at least a fighting chance, if I pay attention.

When I first thought about staying in Ecuador and buying land here I had considered buying several or more hectares and making a go at farming of some kind or another. How glad I am that I settled on my little hilltop half hectare, just enough room to have a little fun with and as well with enough space to have planted half in avocados which will provide a small income beginning in another year or two. Sometimes we get lucky and a make the right decisions . . .

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Apologies - for some reason is not letting me format this into proper paragraphs - - so it looks and reads like one long run on sentence! I will figure out the problem later and fix it . . . Ibarra, Ecuador 27 Junio 2012 I love this country, even when after almost 6 years here there is still so much I don´t understand and so much that drives me crazy. Only a little of that has to do with language - - most is culture and custom. Today I have escaped from la isla en el cielo to Ibarra to shop for lumber, buy groceries, surround myself with people and to have lunch with a friend. I am quite fond of Ibarra and a visit here always lifts me when I am feeling a little low or lonely. Everyone seems to be in a good mood on this sunny sunny day. Now on the bus, returning home, I have already had 3 conversations about the plants I am carrying back (aliso, a native tree); Don Umberto the bus driver has slowed the bus down twice to pick up vendors - - a middle aged man in a blue jump suit selling frozen treats “bon ice, bon ice, yogurt, bon ice . . .” - - and also the pretty young negrita who is always on the corner selling caña (sugar cane). The vendedores make their way up and down the narrow aisle of our bus, a few sales are made, and after a few minutes the negrita calls out “gracias!” and Don Umberto slows down the bus as both she and the blue jump suit hop out, and we pull away as they cross the street to hopefully make a few more sales on another bus heading back to their respective corners. I have passed through several worlds while wandering through Ibarra today - - beginning at the upscale (for Ibarra) “Plaza Shopping Center” which boasts not only a SuperMaxi grocery and KYWI hardware and building supply, but a KFC, a Marathon sports and clothing store, several cell phone and computer storefronts, and an upstairs food court. There is also an escalator, the first and I do believe only one in Ibarra, and for a year or two after the shopping center opened it was great fun to enjoy a cup of coffee and watch as people figured out how to negotiate the moving stairway. Many turned away and simply climbed the old fashioned stairs out back . . . Just a few moments and a few blocks from the “wealth and glitter” of the Plaza shopping is el Mercado - - here old barefooted women sit on curbs selling 50 cent packages of clothespins, matches, and tire tube repair kits, among other things. Men wander the streets and corridors hawking TV antennas and universal remote controls. Indigenous women from Otavalo and Lago San Pablo offer buckets of plump and juicy strawberries while their beautiful little children play nearby, oblivious to the passing automobiles, horse drawn carts, the noise and the chaos. A little later, after lunch, I will sit for awhile in Parque Pedro Moncayo, in the heart of Ibarra, and enjoy the passing parade of life - - old men in rumpled suits out for a stroll, couples old and young passing by hand in hand or with arms draped over one another, an occasional jogger, children running and laughing, dogs looking for dropped bits of food. It´s a lovely small park, only one block square, full of trees including old palms and ceibos, and surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings - - mostly churches and municipal offices. During the past few Christmas seasons the city has gone all out in lighting up and decorating the park, and also providing entertainment such as musica folklorica, fashion shows, and theatre. I always try to spend a night or two in Ibarra during this time to enjoy the offerings. Meanwhile, my lunch date is still 2 hours away, and I am hungry now. Still in the marketplace, I make my way through the crowded (always!) food stalls with their hot gas fired stoves filled with pots of soups and meats and intestines and chicken feet and potatos and yucca and god knows what else. Old wooden booths and plastic tables are filled shoulder to shoulder with diners – digging into plates piled high with rice, lentils, various animal parts and some shredded lettuce or cooked beets. The patched up corrugated tin roofs are low hanging and rusty, and it´s the kind of place where you would expect to see Anthony Bourdain showing up at to sample some succulent goat´s eyeballs or calve´s brains . . . I keep moving to my destination - - a little juice stand on the edge of the market. I order a batido - - fresh fruit juice mixed with milk and a few “secret ingredients”. “Quieres hielo, tal vez?” the mixmaster asks me - - maybe you want ice? “Claro que si”, I respond, and she drops a chunk of ice in the blender. She pours me a tall mug - - the one dollar size - - it is delicious and refreshing, and in about 45 seconds, gone. I put my mug on the counter - - “gracias!”, but before I can leave she pours the remaining contents of the blender into it and almost fills the mug again. “Toma no mas” she says cheerfully, and I do. I was not very hungry by the time lunch rolled around. ---------------------------- Cahuasqui Monday June 11-------------------- There is a “regional” high school in town, and the students are in final exams, which means that they all get out of classes even earlier than normal. So as I wait for the 11 AM bus to Ibarra there are scores of boys and girls wandering through town. They are all wearing their “dress up” school uniforms, white button down shirts topped with grey v neck sweaters, the boys in maroon colored pants and the girls in matching knee length skirts and high white socks. Most of the boys are in groups of 4 or 5, snacking on 10 cent panecitos and funditas of yogurt. The girls walk by mostly 2 by 2, arms hooked, and engaged in smiling, quiet conversation. In another week or two the school year will come to an end. Many of the students will leave town to go spend the vacation period with relatives in Ibarra, Quito, and Guayaquil. Those that remain will work in the fields and try to keep themselves occupied, the boys mostly by playing futbol, perhaps drinking a little to much cerveza, and bothering the girls – who in turn will help their mothers in the house, watch the boys play soccer, and do their best to ignore (usually) the pleading refrains and cooings of the enamored suitors. ------------------------------------------ If I were inclined to write about people´s private lives here on these pages I would have some tales to tell - - of loves found and loves lost, of dreams crashing headlong into reality. Not to mention bad judgement, illogical and immature behavior, unsavory liaisons and oh, so much more! But I am thankfully not inclined to write about such private and personal things, whether they be mine or someone else´s. So I am stuck writing about the hum-drum day to day of my fairly quiet and boring life. I am currently on a bus, which is traveling recklessly and at a very high rate of speed. I am north of Ambato, and this stretch of road is under construction - - no lines, no lanes, no shoulders. It is absolute anarchy, cars, trucks and busses all behaving as if they are the only ones around for miles and miles . . . Sometimes it feels good to have no control over your life – let someone else deal with it for awhile! This past week I felt the need for a little break, so I went down to visit friends in Riobamba, then spent the past 4 days in my old haunt of Salinas de Guaranda. Took a nice little side trip from there up to Simiatug, and also had a chance to visit some of the communities where we had built greenhouses in 2010. All in all it was a very pleasant stay, I reconnected with some old friends including Padre Antonio, and I’m looking forward to going again, maybe in 2 or 3 months. I actually owe a debt to Antonio, and to the Fundacion Familia Salesiana, because they were instrumental a few months ago in helping me renew my visa for another 2 years. Some of you who read this blog may know that although I was raised as a Jew and although I doubt the existence of god I am nevertheless the proud owner of a missionary visa here in Ecuador. I went to work in Salinas in late 2009 and the visa I held then was set to expire in a few months. I explained my situation to the Padre, and some of the other Catholics in the foundation, and they offered to help me get the missionary visa. Of course I felt compelled to explain that I was neither Catholic nor a believer, but the Padre was unfazed - - he made the sign of the cross and proclaimed me to be a “missionary of the buen corazon”. I suggested that he may want to wait and see about that, but thanked him nonetheless, and went to Quito to get my new visa. 2 years later, in February of this year (2012), that visa was set to expire, and I have not spent enough money on my house and land to request an “investor” residency visa. So I contacted the Padre, explained myself, and he came through for me again. So although I may perhaps have a buen corazon, I am also watching out for my own interests, and to carry a missionary visa is quite a coup - - I am pretty much left alone at police and border controls once I show them the thing, which is an excellent fringe benefit, especially when they call me “padre”.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

a donde vas?

One Friday a few weeks ago I had to leave Cahuasqui en la madrugada in order to meet a friend in Ibarra - - from there we were driving down to Quito to spend a “city day.” Dragged myself out of bed, made a pot of coffee and put on some relatively clean clothes, and was out the door by 5.20, in time to catch the 5.40 bus. It was lovely to walk down the hill in the pre dawn; a few people were out and about, chatting idly by front doors, others lined up at the panaderia buying the first warm batch of the day´s bread ration, but mostly all was still and quiet. Despite all my best intentions, I´m rarely up and around in these last few moments of nights´ darkness; usually the best I can do is get out the door by 7am, and by then the sun has been up for almost an hour and the town is a beehive of activity.

As I rounded a corner I saw my friend Rene sitting in his old truck, with the engine idling. “A donde vas?” I asked, and he said he was off to Ibarra, via the Salinas road. “Come on in and ride with me, I don´t have a radio and it will be good to have company!” It was a good offer, so I said sure - - but explained carefully that I was on a bit of a schedule and really, really, wanted to be in Ibarra by 7. 7.15 at the latest, I added, to give us both a little breathing room. “No hay ningun problema, no pasa nada!” he assured me, and that´s when I started to worry, because right then I knew that there would be a problem, and that yes, algo va a pasar. I did some quick mental calculations, and did as any sensible person would have done – which was to choose Rene over the bus. I climbed in.

A very light rain had started to fall as we pulled away from town, which prompted the usual conversation about “cambios de la clima” and how messed up everything is. We passed the time, pondering, until we reached Pablo Arenas, where we were delayed for a few minutes by a small gathering of devout Catholics marching down the street bearing a baby Jesus and singing, apparently not minding the rain, which had picked up a little in intensity. Rene and I figured it was probably the special day of some obscure saint that only a few people seem to know about it.

In Pablo Arenas we stopped for gas - - which is funny because there is no gas station there, as a matter of fact the closest gasolinera is another 40 minutes away in Urcuqui. What they do have in Pablo Arenas is a guy who keeps 20 or 30 old plastic containers of various capacities and a 3 foot long piece of hose in the front hall of his abode, and when you need gas for the trip to Ibarra he´s the guy to see. Rene chose 2 gallon containers formerly used for antifreeze, grabbed the hose, and artfully siphoned all the gas without losing one drop. To assure that 2 gallons was enough to make it down to Ibarra Rene went to check the gauge, and decided that yes, indeed, that will do it. I was a little surprised though that he could be so sure of the gauge´s accuracy, because the truck was parked on what was at least a 30 degree incline . . .

I had noticed when we left Cahuasqui in the darkness and misty rain that Rene was not using the windshield wipers. I also noted that his truck had no headlights, and no taillights – only a single red running light mounted midway up the front of the cab. When I asked Rene if he didn´t need the wipers to “see” (in the darkness) he said “no I don´t need them, and besides they don´t work anyway.”

Now, the road from Cahuasqui to Pablo Arenas, although much improved since I first traveled it in 2007, is closely related in design to a typewriter ribbon that has fallen to the floor and become unspooled - - a narrow, twisty, turning series of hairpin curves bordered by rock on one side and some 500 feet of air on the other – and generally uninterrupted by any encumbrances such as guardrails, signals, or signs. Traveling down this road with Rene, his one hand shifting and steering, the other hand working his cell phone, no lights, no wipers . . . well, let´s just say I had many thoughts about my children, and how badly I felt that I had almost nothing to leave them, and that my body would never be recovered.

But my worries were for naught, as always. As we advanced down the hill the darkness faded, and until the rain stopped Rene jumped out of the cab at least twice to wipe the windshield with an old rag, just to make me feel better.

Rene´s phone rang several times while we were on our way. It turns out we were to pick up a paying passenger in Salinas (de Ibarra) - - and the phone calls were from the father wondering what´s the hold up, why aren´t you here yet, etc. etc. As mentioned, he called several times. We hightailed it through Tumbabiro , hit the long straightaway into the valley, crossed the railroad tracks on the edge of town and pulled up to the passenger´s house, where I was expecting he would be waiting, impatiently. As usual I was wrong, there was no one. Rene tooted his horn a couple of times and in a few minutes a man (the father who had called several times) steps out of the house, relaxed, smiling, and uttering all the requisite morning phrases. Our passenger, he tells us, has just rolled out of bed, but “no se preocupe, he´ll be right out after he gets dressed.” I look at Rene, glance at my watchless wrist, and roll my eyeballs. Rene smiles. Rene always smiles. I send a cell phone message to my friend saying I´m going to be a little late, please wait. It´s almost 7 and we are still a good half hour from Ibarra.

A few moments later the boy staggers out of the house, crawls over me and crams himself into the middle “seat”, straddling the stick shift. We get on our way, por fin, and neither Rene nor I bother to ask the father “what in the hell were all the hurry up phone calls about?” There would have been no point in it, and we both of us knew it.

Five minutes later we hit the Panamericana and struggle mightily up the long winding hills and hold on to our hats while being double and triple passed with alarming frequency. Finally we arrive in Ibarra, only about 40 minutes late. It could have been worse . . . and besides, it turns out that my friend was running a little atrasado as well, and did not have to wait too long for me.

I might have had a faster trip on the bus, but then again you never know.

The attached photo is of Rene, from last year. He's carrying a eucalyptus beam up to the house.

Friday, March 16, 2012

I was slightly chastised recently by a few friends for being so lazy about posting to my blog. My excuse is that I wait far too long between blog entries. And then I feel compelled to write time consuming long-ass missives that try to cover the events, (well at least what seems interesting), of the past 3 or 4 months - - and since I am not a note taker so much is dependent on my bad memory and therefore effectively lost. I really need to learn to do short, sweet, and frequent posts . . . here´s one that´s not too terribly long.

Cue music! - - Vicente Fernandez, tal vez. At a hearty, ear shattering level of volume, of course. After a minute or two, or ten, or fifteen, the music ceases, and a voice comes booming over the loudspeakers mounted in the church steeple - - echoing through the streets and fields. “Buenas tardes moradores (dwellers) de Cahuasqui! We want to announce that in this very moment Doña Maria Guajan has carne de rez (beef) to sell in front of her house! If you desire to buy carne de rez, then you should just go to the house of Doña Maria, at this very moment!” More than likely one of Doña Maria´s milk cows has just dropped dead at 2 in the afternoon, and by 3 PM it´s been carved up into pieces and some little kid has been dispatched to the town offices to tell the local officials, who will then make the important announcement. And it is relatively important, because although just slaughtered pig or chicken is available from street vendors every other day or so, meat of the cow is a delicacy that comes along just every so often. No matter that the cow likely died of old age and that her flesh is tough as shoe leather . . . it´s beef!

The announcements are for me one of the most endearing things about Cahuasqui. Almost all community events are noted via the loudspeakers - deaths in the community; election of the reina; meetings and mingas of the water committee; arrangement of bus transport to a neighboring community for their fiestas; etc. etc. All announcements are almost always preceded by a few moments of pop music, sometimes Ecuadorean, sometimes Mexican or Cuban and sometimes American. The music is a warning, a little advance notice, that important messages are about to be broadcast, so pay attention! When it comes to the death announcements the pop music is replaced by slow and solemn Andean flute songs, usually El Condor Pasa is the favorite. Most unfortunately, sometimes the recording is left running too long, and the soothing flute music eventually degenerates into a sort of reggaeton/trance version of El Condor Pasa, which is not exactly “death announcement” music.

Once in a while the jefe of the water committee will get on the loudspeakers to go on and on about how lazy everyone is because no one showed up at yesterday´s minga to clean the irrigation ditches. He really does get going, and his harangues can last a full fifteen minutes and by then everyone in town is fully ashamed of themselves for being vagos y egoistas (lazy and selfish).

On rare occasions the town officials will decide that things are just a little too quiet around here, that some life needs to be injected into the streets and fields. When that happens we get music, just music. No announcements. Sometimes the music is pretty good, maybe some bomba, maybe some bachatas. A few days ago the music was not so good, however, because we got over an hour´s worth of Aerosmith and Guns n Roses. Makes me wonder, who´s running this show, anyway?
- -
Last week I made an early morning trip down the hill to the ferreteria for a few supplies, and on the return busied myself with keeping an eye out for stray plants and flowers that I could dig up later to plant up at my place. For a short while I lose myself in my scheming, but in a quick moment the sound of charging hooves snaps me out of it. I look up, and racing down the narrow path is a rather large cow with an impressive set of horns on her, and alongside her a calf, struggling to keep up. Ten meters behind them a man is running down the hill crazily waving his arms and yelling for me to “stop the cows! Stop the cows!” All I really want to do is get the hell out of the way, but I instinctively grab a stick, and start swinging the stick to and fro while calling out in a shouting whisper “shoop, shoop, shoop.”

The distance between the cows and I is shrinking rapidly, but with three or four meters to spare the momma digs her heels into the ground, almost just like in the cartoons, and the calf follows suit. Coming to a full stop, she puts her head down, tears a tuft of grass from the ground, nonchalantly turns and heads back up hill where she belongs. The owner shouts out the obligatory “Que Dios le paga!” as he too turns back up the hill. I take the stick, break it into a few pieces, and mark the locations of the plants I want, and then I also head up the hill, back to the house.

I bought my little piece of land in November of 2010. As work progressed on the house I confidently told anyone who would listen that I would be moved in by May. Little did I realize then that it would be almost May of 2012 before I actually made that happen. It´s kind of shocking to see how quickly the past 16 months have come and gone - - but little by little I´m finishing up and moving in. Pretty soon it will be time for the huasipichay (housewarming party), and all 2.3 readers of this blog are invited.