"Every planet has its own weird customs. About a year before we met, I spent six weeks on a moon where the principal form of recreation was juggling geese. My hand to God. Baby geese - goslings! They were juggled."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Alao Llactapamba

It's the name of my new home for the next two years. And again, it's exactly what I thought I wanted.

First I was assigned to Ecuador, my top choice in countries...and now I've been assigned this site, the exact location, the exact pin on the map that I told the NRC director I'd like to live. It's eerie. Again, how does this happen?

This morning the facilitators led us to the field in the back of the training center where they drew out a map of Ecuador and its provinces using rose petals, and after they all lined up along a path leading to the map, calling our names one by one and led us (often skipping) to our new provincial homes. None of the locations were familiar to me, and when mine - Alao Llactapamba - came up, I only knew it sounded extra exotic, and maybe indigenous? And then 'Chimborazo' was said. The PCVL led me to Chimborazo province, which is to say south central Ecuador on the border between the Sierra and the Oriente. I tried to remember where Sangay volcano is - it had to be near there right??

When the ceremony was over, I beelined for the map on the PCVL wall. There it is, Alao, just around the corner from Sangay Volcano. The closest site to Sangay, THE site I pointed out to the NRC director. Alao Llactapamba is a small village of 500 people located 3100 meters (over 10,100 feet) high in the mountains. It's cold, I've been told. If you want to see it on google maps, search for 'Alao, Ecuador'.

Of course, though, these sites are chosen based on our skill sets and interests. So my jobs may or may not include developing environmental education programs with school teachers, helping organize eco-clubs, start an organic orchard, help train ecotourism guides, etc. Apparently I'll be learning a little bit of Kichwa to gain trust, though the population speaks Spanish.

One of the first things we had to do to start this journey was call our future host family and our counterparts. My host mother, the matriarch of the community, didn't answer, but one of my counterparts did...or his wife did, I think. Speaking Spanish by phone is a difficult thing to do for fledgling speakers like myself, so I was dreading the task. But I think I handled it perfectly fine - I understood him, and talked, and didn't stumble at all. No awkward 'no entiendo's. All's well, I hope.

I should be packing, and really I ought to be in bed. But like any trip, I can't sleep. Tomorrow morning, around 6:45 a.m., I meet up with another trainee and a facilitator to travel part way to our sites. After that, we depart alone, mine being a six-something hour bus ride. I'll be staying with my host family, exploring the community and it's desires and needs, and returning in a week

So...until next week...

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Carnaval waterfights and tech trip

Back in Tumbaco, gnawing on a chunk of panela (the proper way to eat sugar).

Our training class of 42 split into four groups last week to embark on tech trips. My Natural Resources Conservation group went to Cotacachi, a sierra town northwest of Tumbaco...something like a fourish hour bus ride away.

28 February 2011: Day 1
Left at the obscene hour of 5:50 a.m. for the park to meet up with other trainees. Took a minibus to Quito, another bus to Otavalo, and another to Cotacachi. Definitely sat on the wrong side of the bus for the best views, but along the way during that crystal clear morning we could see these nevados: volcan Cotopaxi, Antisana, Cayambe, Imbabura, and Cotacachi. At least. Probably am missing some.

When we got to Cotacachi, we dropped off our stuff at a hostel and immediately went to work interviewing residents about their knowledge of the local reserve. The first two people I asked immediately said no, not interested in helping. So I took to the tiendas along the park and, one by one, found success. First a shy woman in a bakery from whom I bought a chocolate bread afterwards, another man completely happy to help as a break from sweeping a furniture store, and a family who scolded me for not introducing myself properly - lesson learned, quickly. The family was incredibly warm and helpful though, and half way through the interview the wife stood up and drew me a cone of soft serve on the house. I finished way early and spent another hour, hour and a half sitting on the plaza church's steps people watching and enjoying the sun.

After lunch, we were given a charla (a talk) from an organization that buys uvillas (like gooseberries, Chinese lanterns, and tomatillos) from local farmers and dries them out to sell. We loaded up taxis for a farm further up the mountain where we helped picked some uvillas and deshelled them. Normally a job for the kids, the liberated children spent their free time chucking rotten uvillas at us from a rooftop, mostly at Paige.

Our dinners were special. That night we went to a pretty fancy place down the street from our hostel where we were actually given many choices - unless you're a vegetarian, like me, who's only option on the menu is grilled cheese. So be it! When our NRC coordinator found out I'm a vegetarian, he asked the waitress if there were more vegetarian options. Super respectful! So I modified grilled cheese with some tomato and mote on the side.

The first time Paige and I stepped back into our room that night, a huge WHOMP made us nearly jump back out - the decorative flag outside was right by our window, and it was storming outside. The rest of the night: whomp, whomp, whomp...our room fully illuminated by street lamps, and at what had to have been 4:30 a.m. or maybe 5, the sounds of the city waking back up. Bad sleep for the rest of the week.

1 March 2011: Day 2
Met at UNORCAC (Union de Organizaciones Campesinas e Indigenas de Cotacachi) for a few charlas about the organization itself.

We were taken by taxi to an ethnobotanical garden where an indigenous woman took us on a tour of all the medicinal plants. Got to smell all the amazing scents (yerba buena, chamomile, etc!) and taste-tested some aji (pepper, yum) and mora (blackberries). Of course, then, we worked. My job was to shovel in gravel in the wheelbarrows while the wheelers dumped it along a path in the garden. Others hoed hand for planting corn.

I'm getting way more comfortable asking before meals for a vegetarian plate - so far, I've run into no issues. So at this farm I asked for one, and received a massive plate of beans and rice. By far my favorite meal in Ecuador. I'll acknowledge that the beans may be cooked in meat juice, but I'm trying at least, and it makes me feel better. It was there that the group discovered the wall of honey wine and, after cracking one open and passing it around, a good number of us (myself included) decided to buy a bottle for $4.

A German volunteer gave us a charla on beekeeping and production on the same farm. Their bees are Africanized, so the beekeeper has to take extra precautions like fumagating them.

Dinner, again, was special: a couple from New York served us a gormet-type menu, all organic and locally produced. And even more special: they had a fully vegetarian option that included a rice-type soup, *falafel*, ratatouille, and more.

2 March 2011: Day 3
Great day for a geologist, especially one who loves volcanoes.

We went to Cuicocha, a small caldera lake south of Cotacachi peak, to help with trail maintenance and to learn about tourism/park management.

Cuicocha (guinea pig lagoon) was formed about 3100-2900 years ago and erupted about 5 km^3 DRE (dense rock equivalent) - VEI 5. For comparison's sake, St. Helens erupted 1 km^3 DRE in 1980. So the ash settled about 20 cm thick surrounding the caldera. Calderas form when material in the magma chamber is ejected enough so that the roof is unsupported and collapses. After the caldera-forming event, four dacitic resurgent domes formed, and two of them are subaerial. A lake occupies the 3-km-diameter caldera with no outlet or inlet.

ahem. sorry.

We took to the trail with palas, picos, and machetes to remove ... rocks... yes, I know, strange things those rocks are. Totally out of place. Happily my job was macheteier, walking along ahead of the group and chopping away plants encroaching on the trail. Not so happy when a volunteer hacked away a century plant, though. We walked about halfway around the caldera where we had lunch, and returned down a trailblaze that connected with a maintenance road.

Five of us stuffed into a truck to get back to Cotacachi, and a kid chucked a waterballoon at us aiming for the open window... partially successful too. Carnaval is coming...

Most of the group went for lasagna ($6?!!) at a hipster-looking little restaurant but a few of us went in search of cheaper pizza. Pizza place was closed, so sketchy empanada joint it was. Ate something like five cheese empanadas and could have had so many more.

Per usual, we hung around the hostel after dinner until our coordinator came in to tell us he had a surprise - not a great one though. So all of us, beers in hand at something like 9 or 9:30 p.m., left the hostel to invade the apartment of a Cotacachi volunteer for a safety talk, which was more like an hour and a half round table discussion of life in Ecuador for a Peace Corps volunteer. While it was truly interesting and helpful, I would have rather it be during the day when I'm not groggy with a beer in hand, ready to relax.

3 March 2011: Day 4
Slept in for 15 minutes longer! We packed everything up and headed for a community called La Calera near Cotacachi.

The morning was kicked off with a couple charlas about the ecotourism organization in the community that invites tourists to become involved with the people and learn more about their way of life and why it matters. Because I hadn't been getting much sleep, I have to admit I had a very hard time staying awake.

So as 'tourists' we were brought to a home where indigenous women were making beaded jewelry, and we were invited to help. We each made a bracelet, and some of us made earrings and partial necklaces. Some trainees bought their bracelets for $3 (usually $5) but I wasn't that interested...

Next up on the tourist agenda: checking out some sacred pools and a small waterfall. Our guide led us through the dense veg for just a quick visit, and on the way back for some reason or other I was laughing at Heather as I followed her around a iron-stained small pool. Laughing so hard that I slipped and fell in, of course. And to top it off, a few minutes later, I brushed by ortiga (stinging nettle) with my sunburned shoulder. Can't help but laugh at all that.

After lunch, our group was split in two. The other group went to another community, and my group stayed in La Calera. We were further split in pairs to homestay in the community. Our host family lived just a stone's throw from the community center and school. The mother and her son greeted us at the door and we met her son who was eating, while her youngest was asleep upstairs. While she did laundry on the piedra, Kristin and I opened bean pods for dinner and breakfast. She has an incredible garden full of medicinal plants for all kinds of purposes, and in the back she keeps a pig, cuyes (guinea pigs), and chickens. Her husband works in tourism escorting visitors by horse and such around the countryside. On the side of their house is a fantastic internet cafe.

Dinner was a soup of potatoes and beans, and bits of beef that I very carefully avoided but ended up chewing on anyway to my displeasure. Our host also presented us with a sweetened warm milk that I couldn't drink...and this was only the second of a few culinary faux pas I had at this house.

Our room was right in the front of the house with two big beds and a bathroom. Felt right at home because our room's decor was old climbing gear - two ice screws, a rope and gaiters hung above my bed, and boots and crampons hung on the other side of the room. The beds didn't have mattresses so my sunburned shoulders ached all night, but I really slept hard anyway. Until we were woken up at 5:30 a.m. by speakers blaring on about some meeting that day.

4 March 2011: Day 5

Breakfast was a plate of scrambled eggs, beans, and corn, with tea, pineapple juice, and toast with strawberry jam. Dreaded eggs. I gave them a good try, but couldn't nearly finish them...just glad my host didn't say anything about how I obviously avoided them.

That morning we had to give charlas (lessons/talks) to children in the school around the corner. Kristin, Paige and I waited for a half hour while the other groups began because we didn't have a facilitator. We ended up with fourth grade. These kids were talented, but they really attacked our patience. I'm not really a kid person to begin with, so when suddenly during class I was surrounded, almost literally buried, by kids, I was stuck not knowing what I should do. Ok, game! Yes. Outside.

Our final visit was to another campo farm, almost totally sustainable with composting toilets, canning, an off-the-grid house, greenhouse, cuy manure, composting pile, and a bike-powered laundry machine.

It took us ages to get home by bus (one to Otavalo, another to Quito, another to the Rio Coca terminal, another to Tumbaco...) but we made it. And oddly enough, my host mom and grandmother were walking home too so I met up with them, happy to be back. And even better: they gave me a key to the outer gate, so now I have the complete set of three keys to go in and out as I please. So finally, over a month into homestay, I went out to meet up with friends for the first time until *midnight*. Can't wait to do it again.

5 March 2011: today!

My mission was to check out that new vegetarian restaurant down the street, so Morgan, Mandy and I went for lunch. Closed, of course. It looks great though. We decided to try for the veg joint in Cumbaya so, on the way to Interoceania avenue, we got foamed by some guys on the street. Carnaval, is it over yet?

We found out this place is actually just Asian, so I went for a few spring rolls and bubble tea (in Ecuador?! yes!). They hit the spot, aside from their incredibly greasiness.

On our short walk home, we were waterballooned pretty hard by a passing card... and then less than a minute later, watergunned by the same car passing by a second time. And when I finally made it home, my middle bro was waiting on the other side of the door with a watergun...but at least he was merciful and spared me. A couple hours later, I got a phone call from my host mom asking if I wanted to play Carnaval. Hmm... ok. Downstairs, my host bros and their friends were loading up waterballoons and guns for this major battle with some neighbor kids. Revenge, finally! It was something like 10 on 2. And the battle resumes tomorrow and Monday. I'll be going up Ilalo again tomorrow but I'm game for Monday's waterfight.