"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."

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Just a day in the campo

Where I am: in bed under six blankets, a 0 degree sleeping bag wrapped around my shoulders. My fingers are icy to the touch and so is my nose which is constantly dripping. It's a steady 50 degrees in my room in the Andean mountains, colder than outside, and I'm spending my first two weeks here staying warm, knitting socks, and studying Spanish and Quichua. My host downstairs is angry about something or other and yells something out the door in Quichua. A rooster or two constantly crows outside - it's almost becoming background noise to me. I gave my host's bravo rooster a name: George. We're buddies.

Donkies wake me up with their braying at about 5:30 a.m., the same time my host wakes up to do whatever downstairs, but sometimes she gets up at 4:30 a.m. to shower and make soup. So essentially that's when I wake up, though I struggle for another hour or so trying to fight the noise and fall back asleep.

I live in a cement house with the kitchen/rustic store downstairs and my room upstairs, which is actually two rooms with a wall in between. The walls are gray-blue which give the illusion that they're not even there, but they also make it feel extra dark and a bit colder. The floors are bare cement because my host said there's no money to put in tile - which is fine by me. Before I came, however, she did apparently spend $1000 on three new windows, a heavy metal door, and metal railings. I have a small table on which I've put my Hawaiian sarong, and a wooden chest for my clothes inside and my books on top. I have no shortage of plastic lawn chairs, and I truly mean that. There are something like 20 or so of them stacked in the corner. My bed is cozy, piled on by the previously mentioned six wool and fleece blankets, each one of them necessary. The other day, my host's son came over by motorbike from Riobamba to get the electrical outlets in my room working again. And he had success, so another wave of 'this is going to be just fine' rushed over me.

Flies love to sneak their way indoors, but they're so cold they can hardly move. You flick them off the ceiling and they just fall to the floor, unable to get the blood moving enough to fly away. Right now, there are about 12 of them on my walls, not moving, not doing anything. So it's not too annoying to be surrounded by bugs after all.

My community sits on the north side of their river at the bottom of an east-west oriented valley with mountains soaring above on either side. Farmland creeps up their flanks almost two-thirds of the way up, and burn scars higher up show farmers' intentions of going beyond. There are less burns than the week I visited in March, however, and I wonder what that means. I know to them it means food and income, but I hope there's a better solution than farming the paramo. Both mountains on either side of the river have trails marching diagonally up and around their flanks, all paths I want to explore someday. On a clear day (do they actually exist?) Sangay, Ecuador's most active volcano, is visible from our mountain, Torre. I imagine El Altar (or Los Altares) is visible as well; it must be astounding up there. My host's brother is a wilderness guide and promises to show me all the beautiful secrets of Alao valley: lagunas, hot springs, waterfalls... they're here, somewhere, you just have to be shown.

The last two days I've been writing a speech to give at the next community meeting. It turned out longer than I guess it should be, but it straightens out once and for all 1) what Peace Corps is, 2) who I am and what my job in the Peace Corps is, 3) what that job entails, and 4) I have these surveys to do over the next few months to learn about what your community wants and needs, could you guys please help me out?? I hope it goes over well, but considering my first speech to them a month ago was impromptu riddled with horrific Spanish grammar and they still gave me a roaring round of applause, I think this one carefully written out and quite informative will be well-received.

Yesterday afternoon, as I translated the speech into Spanish, my host came upstairs and out of the blue, asked me to knit a scarf of homegrown sheep wool yarn for the President. The President... of Ecuador. Raphael Correa. By tomorrow. With lace weight yarn. Confused, and ever the naive optimist, never tiring of any knitting project yet, I agreed and set to it at once. With a sore, stiff neck and tired eyes, I gave up at 11 p.m. with only 7 inches of work to speak of. And it's really truly a shame she didn't asked me further in advance, because today she actually DID meet the President at a massive meeting outside of Riobamba. She said he kissed her on the cheek, but she was disappointed not to be able to give him my scarf. Yep, me too. It would have been really chevere if I had actually finished the scarf and went with them today to give it to him myself. Instead, I spent a lot of the day talking to George.

I'm guessing that's only the beginning of random stories I'll have on this adventure.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

One week

One week ago, we were sworn in as volunteers.

It´s been a long, mentally challenging week. I´m spending a lot of time knitting (warm socks) and studying Spanish and Quichua. A plus: I´m no longer called the ´gringita´but rather my lengthy pet name ´Cristanita´. My first day back in Alao began with a Catholic mass at the little church up the road. They held it almost entirely in Quichua, and at the end put a tv on the altar and played an Easter movie dubbed well in Quichua.

Tungurahua is apparently having its biggest eruption in over a decade, but even though it´s so close, it´s too cloudy to see from Riobamba. Shame.

21 April 2011:
Went to Riobamba with Maria, my host, so she could get plata (money), but the banks were closed so we went to a parade of schools. There was another mass at which I was introduced again, but it was a bit different this time. They shared communion (sweet crackers and red soda pop), washed each others´and my feet with herbs, and shared tons of food like fava beans, bread, and ´chitos.´ I learned the proper way to eat fava beans.

22 April 2011:
Began knitting a sock from memory. So far so good! It was raining so the Easter procession the community planned was delayed until the afternoon, but sure enough it still happened. A group of us followed a guy acting as Jesus dragging a cross with him as a couple other people whipped him. Much of the crowd sang a song in Quichua as we went from house to house (each station) to learn a lesson about Christianity. We ended at the church at dark where Jesus was tied to the cross and lifted to the entrance, then painted red to signify the piercing.

23 April 2011: Went to Riobamba... again. She got her plata and we wandered the open air street markets for hours (it´s Saturday, a big market day). Could spend ages getting lost around there.

24 April 2011: Woke up by donkey at 5:30 a.m. Studying Spanish, knitting, reading. Maria feeds me too much - three full meals each day, hardly any time in between. Always with a huge plate of rice, usually a soup (I won´t eat soup again for years when I get back to the States), and if I´m super lucky, french fries which I´m getting used to eating with mayonnaise. Maria presented me with a bag of homemade wool and told me to knit her knee-length socks...it´s lace weight yarn. We went to yet another meeting at which the secretary didn´t show up, so the group had fun talking about me in Quichua so I couldn´t understand, but occasionally they´d look at me and laugh. And seeing my confused face, they laughed more. Now I know how important it is to speak the same language as the people around you...if you exclude someone using language, they can´t help but feel like you´re talking badly about you.

25 April 2011: Maria went to Riobamba and I stayed behind. Nice day to relax and study, and cook my own meal using the scary gas burners. Started reading Being Caribou which makes me miss Alaska more than ever.

26 April 2011: Maria took me up the mountain a little ways to get plants for her rabbits. What a view, and I was only a third up the mountainside. Can´t wait to go higher.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

One day

I couldn't sleep because of swear-in excitement (or anxiety), and at about 12:30 a.m. I got an email from my dad saying that my mom's going into surgery in the morning for a hernia. It turns out she's had it for a while but kept it a secret from me so I wouldn't worry. I'm not a fan of this approach.

The surgery went fine and she's resting now, but it was a tense morning for me. I dealt with an angry stomach all day because of this and the impending swear-in event. Peace Corps Ecuador took us on a cultural trip to the historical center of Quito, which felt just like Europe for obvious reasons. I think one of my favorite parts of the trip was discovering a tiny cafe where they actually pull real espresso shots.

Our final stop was the Basilica del Voto Nacional, an enormous structure (the largest basilica in the New World) that permits you to climb to the top of the towers after paying a fee of $2. It was wildly fun - especially climbing up thin metal rungs with vast vacancies below.

Indigenous women were outside selling scarves, 2 for $5. I wanted to try out my Quichua so I tried and they actually understood me and responded. I spoke Quichua!

Training ended early today, for good. I mailed a letter to the U.S. ($2) and went home to pack. It's taken me hours, too, including cleaning. I can't stay up any longer.

Tomorrow's the day. We'll be sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers and depart for our sites. I'm on the 10:30 a.m. bus, so there's no rest or mingling for me. It's all rush, rush rush. Quite nervous now.

Monday, April 18, 2011

If not now, when?

At dinner today with my training host family, I realized when tomorrow comes I can say "Tomorrow I'm moving to my permanent site. For two years. THIS IS IT." I can't believe the time has come and after a year of applications, interviews, travel and training, Omnibus 105 Ecuador will be sworn in as United States Peace Corps Volunteers.

In honor and memory of our training time together, I put together a little video:

It's tough to describe how I really feel. I'm excited, but daunted. The job is indeed tougher than I thought it would be, and whatever is before me is a lot more difficult than I imagined. And I face something else I didn't expect - leaving what has become my family. My training host family is home. I love where I live, I love the comfort and privacy, I love that I can be a vegetarian with no problems, I love how patient my host mom is and how entertaining and...well... brotherly my host brothers are. I never had siblings so for three months it was really fun to have teenage brothers even though we didn't get to hang out much.

So it's hard to leave. After we've established the only home we know in Ecuador, we have to move on. And it's not even a smooth transition - because it's Semana Santa (Easter week), travel is an unbelievable mess so Peace Corps is making us leave the same day as swear-in. For some of us (me), that means right after the ceremony, at 10:30 a.m., we board a bus for Quito to catch rides to our permanent sites. No after party, no celebration.

And as usual, I'm not packed yet.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Site visit, Part II

I was really frustrated most of my time in site. I was first really put off by the fact that it seems the community's number one priority with me is getting me to teach English, which was not at all the reason I came. I couldn't understand most of what anything anyone in my site said, a combination of me not knowing much Spanish, them speaking Kichwa, and them speaking Spanish with quite a different accent. And a communication barrier = loneliness. I still haven't figured out how they recreate, either. There are only four teeny, very limited stores (think old bread, crackers, sweets), a school for young kids, a church that may or may not be used, and that's about it. The community also has a what looks to be a really beautiful interpretation center (naturalist interpretation) and a technical office for the national park, but neither were open and both are relatively off the beaten track. When Peace Corp says you might be living in a fish bowl, they weren't kidding. I live in the ultimate fish bowl. I can't walk down the road without someone asking me where I'm going. Kids peer over the brick wall and stare at me.

I recall sitting on the roof of what would be my future room, looking out over my tiny community doing its thing, and thinking that maybe I could just go back to the States and give up. And we can, at any minute without any specific reason, we can pack up and go home for good.

I came back from my site visit feeling really discouraged, feeling like I was fleeing my permanent site and couldn't get back soon enough to Tumbaco. I texted my host mom to say I was in Quito, and she said she was too - at her mother-in-law's for lunch with my host bro and grandmother. So I navigated the city to her house and wow, was it so amazing to meet up with them again. I realized in just two months, they really did become my family. They served me bunches of vegetarian food and explained I could just eat what I wanted, don't worry about the rest. They walked away and let me eat in peace (they didn't stare at me). I could understand them.

So maybe this community in Alao will eventually become my family, with time, like my family in Tumbaco did. I have no idea what will happen, but I do know that if I quit and went back to the States, I would just want to come back.

And anyway, when I analyze all the negatives, they're only negatives because I either don't understand them or don't know yet how to deal with them.

1. Not understanding anyone's Spanish or Quichua => I'll learn. It'll be tough at first.
2. They all want to learn English => I'll teach a little but with a conservation theme. At least the community and kids WANT to learn something, anything! This is huge!
3. Lonely => Got to make friends, visit old ones, climb mountains, read, etc.
4. People staring at me => Hopefully it'll lessen. Anyway, they were just curious. They're friendly.
5. Problems with me being vegetarian/not eating a lot => Host will get used to my habits. And I'll live on my own in three months.
6. It's COLD => Hopefully I'll adapt. Maybe I'll find a heater. Hopefully I'll obtain lots of pairs of heavyweight long underwear. Other trainees are already unloaded their cold weather wares on me. So far, I've obtained: a set of pajamas, mittens, a scarf, and a waterproof coat. I've heard rumors of fleeces coming my way too...

So if I can transcend all those above negativos, I can do this. And things will be ok.

Plus I learned one of the most important phrases ever (to me) in Quichua:

Ñucaca mana aichata micuni. (I don't eat meat). Explaining why, however, is far into the future.

Just one week away, we'll all finally be sworn in a official U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers. That very same day, we hop on buses to get to our permanent sites in hopes of beating out the Easter crowd. I know I'm not the only one who is deeply disappointed that we don't get to celebrate or even kick back for a second afterwards. Even worse, whatever time we leave, almost all of us will arrive in our sites at night. Fun.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Site visit, Part I

I wanted to wait a few days before I jumped into an entry about my permanent site in Alao Llactapamba. All 42 of us trainees visited our permanent sites for a week and returned a couple weeks ago to our training town and back to our training families. I was really pessimistic about my experience, but now that I've had a chance to talk to others about their own experiences, I feel less alone and more like I had a typical visit. I broke it up in a few parts though 'cause it's pretty long and winded.

When I woke up on Thursday morning, cozy in my Tumbaco bed, I'll admit it - I had a moment of panic. This was it! Here we go, this morning, on to glimpse our lives for the next two years which is out of our control yet again.

I was packed and ready to go, so I got ready and slipped out of my family's house. At 6:30 a.m., it was still too early for any of the stores to be open but there were plenty of people rushing to get where they were going. A facilitator and another trainee and I met on the main street where we caught a bus to Cumbaya, and waited again on the street for a small white van to take us to Quitumbe, the southern terminal of Quito for $1. That dread snuck up again during the ride, leaving the familiar (my friends) and leading myself - or dragging myself - into the unknown.

In an instant, Erin the trainee was on her way, and next I had a ticket in hand for a bus to Riobamba leaving in mere minutes. I sat at the window, hoping to view the nevados (snowy mountains) on the way south, but sadly it was too cloudy. The clouds didn't obscure all the scenery though, so in between looking up unfamiliar words on my packet of paperwork (you applicants who think it stops at acceptance, think again. It continues forever) I just looked out and stared at life outside the window.

My travel to site is straightforward, and with zero trouble I continued in a taxi from the interprovincial terminal in Riobamba to the La Dolorosa sector to catch one of the hourly (?) buses to Alao. The bus driver, with a big smile, shook my hand. You know how strange it is when you meet someone and have this impression of them, and when you meet them later you think something else of them or you know them better - well, I'd meet all the bus drivers of Pungala and they're all pretty good guys it seems. I also had this funny moment waiting on the bus as other smiling people got on: I'm going to know all of them. These are my community's members. They're anonymous now, but pretty soon we'll all transcend that strange feeling and maybe see each other differently.

I thought the ride would take an hour, so I anxiously looked for any sign saying 'Alao' and wondered where I'd have to get off. The bus climbed up a broad valley into farmland, greener and greener, more and more rural. We passed a small town - Licto - where another volunteer lives. A man in a poncho with a hard white hat sat by me, and I asked if he could point out Alao Llactapamba. He said he'd be getting off too, but I'd have no trouble figuring out where to get off.

So beyond Licto the road turns to single lane dirt. We continued higher, crossed a river, and suddenly we were crawling up a steep slope. Around the corner, and yet higher, the Rio Alao dropped further below us. Not too long, the river was maybe a thousand feet or more below, the drop shear with zero room for error on the road and mountains still stretching above. I've been on similar roads before, but this one made me white-knuckled.

I knew I was in the right place when everyone got off and when the bus turned around to return to Riobamba. The dirt road continued up the valley, and town is a series of cement buildings lining the road. I asked the kids who got off the bus where my host lived, and they all knew.

Maria lives about a quarter down the road through the town, which is to say about a 20 second walk. I knocked, and out she came, a very hard-to-understand Kichwa woman who greeted me and showed me my future room which still needed windows. Another feeling of shock hit - it's a small rustic room with an old wooden slat bed. While chatting, I told her I don't eat meat...or fish... or (gasp...I bravely threw it in the mix) eggs. She freaked out for the first of many times. Then what DO I eat? I listed all the sierran vegetarian dishes I could think of. Ok, this could work. Right?

She took me to the kindergarden right up the road (arriba, she says, though it isn't up high) to meet the caregivers and see the really little guaguas playing. The women smiled wide and greeted me; the kids crowded around and stared.

Nighttime was another shock. When the sun slips away (it's a east-west valley, so luckily the sun lasts a reasonable time) the temperature plummets fast. I slept with extra clothes on plus my heavy fleece coat and socks and fleece hat, and still I shivered all night curled in an uncomfortable ball for fear of moving and loosing the little bit of heat I trapped.

For breakfast, Maria served me a plate of rice with a chunk of chicken on top. I probably grimmaced involuntarily, and told her that I don't eat chicken either - it's meat. Again, she asks "What DO you eat?!" Rice! I'll eat the rice. She declared we were going to Riobamba tomorrow to buy food.

While she and the women farmers went 'arriba' to their fincas for the day's work, I went to the school to meet one of my counterparts. I was recieved warmly and met the other fourish school teachers, and learned right away their number one priority is learning English, and am I here to teach a class? Uh oh. This isn't why I'm here, not at all. I thought they said on the application that they wanted to develop an environmental education cirriculum, and learning English isn't at all on it. I tried explaining this, but I could see their enthusiasm drifting.

I talked awkwardly with the older class about why I'm there and where I'm from. And I said it - I'm from Alaska. I identify most with this place; I feel ever since I discovered my heart's been in the Pacific coast. Washington, Alaska, British Columbia. All of it. I said my parents are in Chicago, but I'd be returning to Alaska in two years if I can. The kids all knew AK is cold, but everyone seemed shocked to see it's so northwest of Canada.

I learned then that a lot of children's parents live in the United States, in Connecticut and Boston, and many of the kids are apparently orphaned. As I left, a little girl called out "Say hello to my mommy in the U.S.!" My heart broke.

When class ended, I was instantly surrounded by innumerable children. Packed in, no where to go, wall to my back. I had no choice but to answer to their demands: They want to learn English, and they want to teach me Kichwa. So word after word, they drilled me. "What's 'hat'? What's 'blue'? What's 'goodbye'?" And I started writing Kichwa down. We were told that notebooks would usually intimidate Ecuadorians, especially rural inhabitants, but this is not the case. The kids started shouting out more words because they saw how interested I was. Couldn't keep up, totally pleased the kids care about the language but didn't mind the notebook.

The local association of trabajadores (workers) met at 8 p.m. down the road in a small, cold building while a group of young girls outside drunk themselves to the 'meander around town drunkenly' state. I didn't understand most of the meeting - my Spanish isn't that good, and besides, they frequently revert to speaking Kichwa and speak Spanish with an accent. It was still interesting, and I was pleased again to meet everyone and see how warmly they greet people (shake hand, say 'good morning, evening, night'). It was inspiring to see that in my community, women have an equal say in matters. I'm not even sure much machismo exists in Llactapamba.

In Riobamba the next morning, I met Maria's son who is just a year older than me and seems to be an interesting guy, but again there's that strange communication barrier that doesn't really exist for me here in Tumbaco. Priority number one: get the underprepared girl some warm clothes so she doesn't freeze to death overnight. We tried a mall which had hilariously inadequate jackets which Maria scorned at bitterly. I told her I wanted something made out of wool, something handmade....Aha! We went to an indigenous market and scored a couple really warm and beautiful handknit sweaters. I'd eventually like to blend more and more in with my community - they have it right too. Wool ponchos are the way to go.

Next we pillaged a store for their freshies. Maria just grabbed anything I looked at, threw it in the cart, bought it all. At a huge open air fresh produce market, she continued grabbing. Everything. Whatever looked interesting, she grabbed it. I have no idea how much she spent, but it had to have been a lot and certainly more than I paid her for the week's rent. I don't know how she could afford it.

Back home, she took me by surprise when she told me I was going to teach her how to prepare everything. Hmm... what else do you do but make soup here? Her son snuck in a can of mushrooms and Maria, having never tried them in her 61 years, actually wanted to give them a try. Rico (tasty) she declared. Each meal, she said I'd 'die of hunger' because I don't eat anything. In reality, I eat very slowly and frequently...which I guess is a foreign idea to her. I had to explain with each mountain of a meal that I can't do it. There's no room. It's not possible. I'm hoping this won't be a daily event when I return to live, because one week of trying to excuse myself was tough enough.

Stay tuned for part II...