"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."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A week of kids

There is a kid on my roof.

She's running back and forth looking excitedly down on the road below. With the rain and all, I'm not sure why the perch is so attractive, aside from my place being one of the higher buildings in the community. I feel bad because I'm actually hoping it rains harder so maybe she goes home. See, my host is gone for the night and tonight I'm planning on attempting to make garlic naan, my first time in Ecuador. Not that I don't want to share it with her or share the inevitably amusing experience of getting bread dough to rise in 50 degree weather, but sometimes I really, really just need my alone time...especially while cooking.

Oh! There she goes. Honestly I really like the kid, she's one of my favorites in town. But the times when my host goes out of town are cherished alone times for me, meaning time for experimenting in the kitchen (reproducing my Americanized dishes without an oven and without the usual ingredients), time to watch movies or knit, time to read. Also she loves to visit Moo but Moo is much less tolerant of kids than the typical family golden retriever. She sits unhappily in the reveler's arms, ears back and eyes wide while a local kid pets (pats) her head...hard. But I'm lucky - she doesn't bite. When she's irritated, she just kicks at you with her hind claws, or murmors a really pathetic whimper if times are really rough and you've got her captive.

The next day I followed my host down a mud alley to a locked field where she cuts grass for her rabbits and cuyes. She mentioned the house nearby is the kid's home. I was sort of stunned. The house is a really small cement-block one story with a tin roof, guarded by an emaciated black dog. The yard is patchy grass and mud, littered with cement blocks, wire, and knicknacks. Next door is a two story painted house in stark contrast.

She left for Riobamba and I stayed. When school let out for the day, around 12 p.m., I heard a lot of commotion. Kids ran en masse down the road and up an alley, and came back carrying someone in a sheet. I thought it was a kid, until they dropped the sheet and an arm, head, and exposed belly tumbled out. I gasped - I thought for a second it was a body of a dead man. I slid on my boots and went out to investigate.

Turns out, the man is their teacher and he wasn't dead, he was extremely drunk. So much so that he certainly couldn't walk, and neither could he talk. He had to have dangerously drunk. When the kids saw me coming, they all ran up to me and gave me tons of hugs. Some never let go, too, and I had to walk around with a kid clinging to either side of me. They spent over an hour dragging him back and forth with no clear destination in mind. I kept asking what they were going to do with him, and saying that he probably needs to see a doctor - also, telling them to keep him rested on his side. I was in no mood to clear vomit from someone's mouth because he was on his back. Eventually he regained some form of consciousness and began giggling airily every now and then. Everyone, the kids and the passersby, thought this was hilarious. But I wasn't laughing. My dad got the point when I told him the story: any teacher who would do that in the U.S. would be arrested immediately.

So later, I was sitting here in my room again knitting and the girl came back making the same sort of rukus in the storage room next to my place. This time I didn't wish her away. If she wanted to play here, that's fine by me. She clanged and thumped for an hour until she ran off again. I peeked in to see what she'd been doing. An old lime green political banner was strung out from the room and on to the railing, and inside she'd set up a metal plank on a cardboard box, and on top were several pots - some containing mud. On the ground lay an ancient dirty doll swaddled in cloth. Maybe she'd been playing house? It was really adorable. I got this picture before she tore it all down later that night:

And later that night she did come back, this time with her older sister. My host asked me to give her lunch and dinner whenever she stops by, so I heated up the leftover soup, beans, and rice. Wow, can that girl eat. Much more than me. After we'd all finished, and after they spent 30 minutes or so terrifying Moo, the girls asked me for matches to light a "candela." I was really confused. Light what?! Finally I got that they intended to light a fire meetinghouse pit, and, shrugging, handed over my matches.

As they did that, I went off to shower since I had to leave at 6 a.m. the next morning for Riobamba. Of course, the minute I step into the shower and lather up my hair, the power goes out. Which means I was standing in ice cold water (it's an electric shower), in pitch blackness behind a locked door, in ambient temperatures of about 40 degrees, with goop in my hair. I managed to get out, shivering, just wanting to go to bed but the kids were still here. I was confused again - when the power came back on, both the kids jumped into the shower themselves. Turned out they lit the fire to warm up by after showering.

Kids confuse me.

Also, it snowed:

Also, Moo may or may not be saying hello (probably not):

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cold climates and not eating meat

The past couple of weeks, my room hasn't climbed above 60 degrees...which to me, now, is much too warm. It's usually around 52 degrees, which is also a little too cold to sit around in comfort. Sometimes it goes down to 48 degrees or lower, and that's when I wrap my sleeping bag around me at night while I read or knit or do whatever. Sleeping gets uncomfortably warm above 62ish degrees, and when it's below 50, I shiver a bit and pass out...cold.

But today, it's glorious. The sun is shining through high-altitude fair weather clouds, and there's maybe an even amount of blue and white in the sky. This is significant. I'll have my windows open for the first time in weeks to suck in the warm air. "Lindo dia" my host commented. It's unusual for her not to complain about the weather - usually it's too windy or rainy, and she almost daily comments "Ahchachay!" which is in fact a Quichua expression for "It's freaking cold." I always thought it was an Ecuadorian slang phrase (which I'm sure it can be classified as such right now) but it's actually been around for a long while.

Anyways, things just feel more optimistic when you get a nice day; they're rare.

Unfortunately clear skies mean icy-cold nights and, for the first time I ever noticed, there was frost on the ground when I woke up the other morning. My room temp plummeted overnight from 65 to 49 degrees.

(as a funny sidenote, I did go to those hot springs in the mountains. It was mostly cloudy, and in three hours, my shoulders got sunburned. Ouch.)

I have no clever segway into my next topic, being a vegetarian, except that it's both easier and harder than I expected to be one in Ecuador. Easy because, as I'm sure I've mentioned, my phenomenal host family in Tumbaco was already mostly vegetarian so it was (as far as I knew) simple to accommodate me. Plus they never interrogated me in a "are you a moron?" way, just asked me about my beliefs out of curiosity. Tumbaco also has at least two vegetarian restaurants, and one of them is a fantastic, very proud place that serves gourmet meals for $2.50 (soup, tea, huge plate of food, oatmealy drink).

And then there's where I live now. My host is not nearly a vegetarian but she has done her best to accommodate me. She serves me three meals a day, all of them as previously described absolutely gigantic, balanced, and well-made. The first three weeks, she introduced me to everyone as a vegetarian, and everyone gasped in surprise and asked me the questions vegans and vegetarians alike fear in the U.S.: what DO you eat? They list food too. First they start with the meat that isn't meat (at least, not in Ecuador): Do you eat cuyes (guinea pigs)? No. Do you eat chicken? No. Do you eat fish? No. They get so exasperated with all the no's that they start listing everything else: Do you eat rice? Yep. Potatoes? Yep. Beans? Yep. Fruit? Yep. Yes. I eat anything that isn't an animal (except bananas...shudder).

I thought those days were behind me and people got that I'm different in so many ways from them, that I've been here for two months and I haven't died of starvation yet. But the other day, sitting on the bus waiting to go home from Riobamba, the pan man (what I like to call the roving bread vender) picked on me once he discovered I speak Spanish. I had no where to run or hide, so he bombarded me with question after question, eventually ending up on the expected "Do I have a boyfriend?" question. And I hate myself sometimes because I'm too honest, and always say "No." I wish I could just lie and maybe then they'd leave me be. So eventually, somehow, we got on the subject of food and when the conversation got awkward about how he thinks guinea pig is so delicious, I cut it off and mentioned I'm a vegetarian. Why? Oh... well, first because I can't take responsibility for killing animals. And he let out such a laugh. Hint: If you're interested in a girl, genuinely or for a free pass to a foreign country, ought not to laugh at their strongly-held beliefs.

And today is my Riobamba day. In a couple hours, I´ll get back on a bus to ride 1.5 hours back to my site...and so will the pan man. Ugh.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Just a super quick update to give you a quick introduction to Moo:

Turns out she´ll do ANYTHING for carrots, dandelions, and clover flowers. When I let her out, she follows me step by step all over the place, and she´s polite too - she saves her bathroom time for when I put her back, or does it right before I pick her up. Thanks.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What AM I doing here?

It's a question I ask myself a lot as our omnibus approaches our third month of service. In theory our first few months in site are for integrating into our communities and surveying a representative population to gain a feel for what they actually want and need. It's easier said than done, though, in my opinion regarding my unique situation.

It seems the people most interested in me are people older and younger than me. The people my age are spectacularly uninterested in me and seem really shy. So...a feeling of loneliness is, I guess, inevitable. Moo helps as a creature to take care of and talk with, but it's sort of problemmatic that she doesn't talk back. I call my folks once a week for $10 on Saturday, the best day of the week. But my host isn't much of a conversationalist, at least, not around me. If I bring up how I'm feeling (missing home, family, friends...) she instantly weeps about missing her own family, whose members have either died or moved far away.

I get really encouraged, though, when little glimmers of familiarity and friendliness shine. I offered to help with English teaching at the school so I go there Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The kids are ravingly excited to see me, really, after almost two months they still all leap out of their chairs to shake my hand and say "Good morning!" in Spanish or English. Once I was almost about to shake the teacher's hand when I was tackled and intercepted from below by her kids hugging me. The teachers themselves are also very welcoming, and one told me I could call her any time if I ever needed anything, especially in Riobamba.

And a bus driver refuses to take my $1 fare (the cost of the 1.5 hour ride from my site to Riobamba). I try to pay each time, but each time he shakes his head and says we're friends. His bright 12-year-old daughter is attending school in Riobamba, and comes to my site once a week to visit home. During my first month, she came up to visit me and ask if I could help her with English. Back then I was really leary about giving in and teaching English, but now I've opened up to it. It may not be exactly what I'm here to do, but it sure does help make friends and open dialogue up. So I told her I can help her out on Saturday evenings. We're even doing a language exchange - for the first half of the session, we work on English. And the second half, she switches and helps my Spanish.

Last week, I finally got myself down to the Parque Nacional Sangay technical office, about a kilometer walk up the dirt road, to talk with the guards. On my way I passed the community's secretary, who I said the usual hello to and said I'd like to give a little speech at the next meeting. As I started to go, she said her and the kids are going 'muy, muy arriba' (Alaosian for 'really far away', like lejos) and I could join them in the hike if I wanted. YES! Meet at 9 tomorrow. Except sadly she had a death in the family and had to postpone the hike... perhaps next week.

I was really hoping the guards would tell me what to do, but instead they were asking me for ideas. Sounded like we have a tough job ahead of us, but I felt welcomed by them. Each time I meet them, they say the office is like my home and I'm welcome any time.

And I'm known as 'Cristinita' to most people here, an endearing term that adds an extra syllable to an already long name. I miss being called 'Cris' by my host family in Tumbaco. But my name here is a good indicator about how people feel about me: if my host isn't pleased with me or is feeling not so great herself, I'm 'Cristina' (or when she calls me down, it's 'CristiNAAA'), but when she likes me or is feeling fine, it's Cristinita. I always dread going down to eat when it's the first. Yep, sometimes I'm still called a gringa, or usually a gringita. Once I was buying veggies at a market and a woman next to me told her baby, "Look, a gringita!" Haha. Wow. Yes, I look a little different. Way to make me feel it.

It may be cold, cloudy, and rainy here, but there are hot springs! A couple teachers, students, and parents invited me along to their field trip next Tuesday to swim around in one. Fun!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Moo hits the town

Last Wednesday I went to Riobamba as usual and read up on breeds of black and white rabbits. Looks like Moo is a mixed breed with mainly Checkered Giant in her but she lacks the distinctive black stripe down her back and the black butterfly on her nose. I also read up on ways to tame rabbits so I was excited to get back and try them out on her. She had other plans.

So I opened my door and looked immediately to the cage. She was gone. My eyes wandered to my room to look for her but instead saw that the entire floor was covered in rabbit poo. Every square foot, evenly distributed. I walked in shock to my room where the trail continued.

I was about to lean over and look under the bed for Moo when suddenly she surprised me - standing up on hind legs to greet me on top of my table - she's more hare than rabbit - looking extremely innocent and pleased. I swiftly picked her up against her wishes and saw there were blood splotches all over. Geez. What happened? She didn't look in pain and at first glance I couldn't find the wound.

I began by picking up all the poo...mercifully bunny poo is relatively neat compared with other animal poo. I was also pleased to see she had not yet made it to my bed, at least that I can tell. It seems she started by devouring her generously stocked bag of treats (dandelions, white clovers, and carrots). She wandered around below the cage, then hopped up somehow, and for some unknown reason, on the guest bed to explore there. She hopped back down, and up onto my bookshelf. Using the books like a ladder, she made her way on top of my table where I think she hurt herself. Conveniently, my bag of (human) food was on a chair next to that, so she helped herself to that and smeared blood all over. Finding the end of the line, she went back to the table for a snooze.

I haven't figured out how she snagged her toe. The blood began on my table but there's nothing on it that she could have caught herself on. Later that night she nipped the rest of the hanging nail off and the wound's healing.

She had been extremely naughty but she was injured and was actually pretty docile going back to the cage, so I went downstairs to cut up a carrot. When I came back, she had escaped again. But she heard me come in and, in an instant, she was racing towards me from my room. I stood in shock again as she ran up to my leg and nudged me, then stood up on hind legs to beg. I gave her a carrot and she ran off to eat it. Maybe potty training and having her run free isn't too far away... once I rabbit-proof everything.

So now when I open the top of the cage, she leaps up on my shoulder. I put her on the floor and she hovers around me begging for treats. If she runs off somewhere, she's learned one very important sound: the crinkle of a plastic bag, which means TREATS, and she runs back to me. She even responds to 'Moo,' 'come', and kissy sounds. It's great that she's mostly lost her fear of me, but it's also kind of sad that she's only interested in me for food.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rabbits and Riobamba

Last Saturday my host and I went to Riobamba when the city has its major market day. Products flood into the streets and you can find anything you could ever think of or want. It's a fascinating place on Saturday and I love going, especially when I'm with my host because she knows exactly where everything is and she loves haggling.

First things first, we had to find breakfast. She surprised me and dragged me out of bed at 6:30 a.m. to catch the bus, so we hadn't eaten. The apparent vegetarian restaurant was closed so we walked around for an hour looking for another place but, finding nothing, my host led us to a small indoor market where we started off with corn and cheese tortillas and oversweetened coffee. I loooove those tortillas - they are exactly the same as pupusas in El Salvador - so my host bought a few more to bring home with us. I could have stopped there, but she insisted on having a second course. For me, it was a massive plate of rice, avocado, beets, salad, and bitter orange juice. It's funny how people here consider that insufficient, but in reality it's much more balanced and healthy than the food I make back home in the states.

After some more errands in that part of town taking up the whole morning, it was finally time to dive deep into the outdoor street market. The vendors and shoppers take over the street, but somehow the street isn't closed and cars - even buses - squeeze through the crowds. I followed as my host browsed around, happy just to be there looking.

We made it to the small animal pavilion where rabbits and guinea pigs were mixed together. I had both too many choices but too few because not many rabbits were the age I was looking for, about two months. I liked the mottled muddy brown rabbits because they looked like the wild cottontails in Illinois, but my host liked the "fancy" breeds.

It was sad seeing them all, though, because remember this isn't a pet market. These rabbits and guinea pigs are raised to be eaten and are treated like that too: when you seem interested in one, the handler picks it up by the ears and plops it in your hands before you can protest. That happened to me when my host oogled at a black and white rabbit that looked a bit too big. "Embra" (female) the handler said, picking her up by the ears. My host asked how much she was and handler said ten dollars, and plopped her into my too-small cardboard box in my arms. "Noooooo,' snarled my host, "No more than five." The handler scoffed and said no way, it's a female, nine and no less. "Eight," my host persisted. I didn't notice any sign of agreement and I for sure didn't say that was the rabbit I wanted. But my host said to pay her eight...so...I had a rabbit.

I thought for a bit. "It's called "Wagra" ("cow" in Quichua)," I told my host as we walked away from the livestock pavilion.

"Hmmm...no, it's a "Cunu" ("rabbit" in Quichua)," she answered.

"No, I mean, it looks like a cow so it's named "Wagra."

"Noooooo, no good. How about... "Colbel." It looks like a flower called colbel."

Hmmmm. She picked out AND named my rabbit.

After finding a couple hens for Campeon, we finally went home. I called up my folks and told them I had a bunny, and it was black and white. Mom immediately said, "NAME IT MOO!!"

So Moo it is. Or Moo Colbel. But I like Moo.

Moo's a little shy so far. She absolutely hates being picked up and thrashes wildly, kicking her hind paws out like a kangaroo which have already scratched me up pretty good. But I found out she goes crazy for clover, dandelion and carrot treats. After I gave her just a little, she now hops up on her hind legs to beg for treats whenever I walk by, every time without fail. At least now I can pet her without her running away to hid in the corner. Each morning I've been waking up worried and I nervously peek around the corner to see if she's still alive. After the two baby ones dying, I'm paranoid. But she seems super healthy and not ready to keel over any time soon.

The other day when I was reading in the afternoon by her hutch, someone started tapping on my window. Unlike my host, I figured it was a curious kid. I looked out the door. No one. I looked down the walkway. No one. Then 'tap tap tap tap tap.' A chicken. One of my host's two new hens made her way up the stairs and fluttered up to my window to, for some unknown chickeny reason, tap on my window. I grabbed her, but meanwhile her compatriot already made it down the walkway and through the railing onto the top of the gate where she could easily fall either out of the house or into the house. My host came out that second to tell me dinner was ready, and holding out the chicken, I just pointed at the other one about to escape.

And the next morning, when I didn't wake up at 4:30 a.m. when Campeon the rooster crowed, he came and got me. He hopped up the cement staircase and, at 5 a.m., bellowing, angry crows flooded my room. I swore he was crowing in my ear, but he could only get as far as my door. My host was up already, so I quietly opened the door so she wouldn't hear me, shoved him down the stairs, and slept for another hour.

He didn't forget. In the afternoon, as I sat reading in the sun in my room, he snuck up the stairs again. I didn't notice as he slowly placed himself in the doorway, about three feet away from me. Facing me, in his triumphant moment, he let loose his most angry, loudest crow.

Maybe I'll try eating chickens again.

(not really)