"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."

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...


  1. Hi! This is really cool! Email us or facebook what you need the most. Still want a crank radio? Good Luck. Robert and Patrice

  2. Wow. What an experience. I cant wait to see your little community.

  3. Robert: Thank you so much!! :)

    Jen: Yea! Should be fun! Looking forward to seeing you too.