"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, July 30, 2011

Are the tables turning?

Maybe...things are getting better. Or this is temporary. Either way, I'm actually having a great week - it's the best I've felt so far in site. I'll detail today, Thursday:

My host spent the night in Riobamba and asked me to do a bunch of chores for her which I don't mind doing so long as she doesn't complain about me not doing them right. I got up at 6:20 a.m., a little earlier than usual, and got garlic naan started. While the dough rose, I gave grass ("yerba") to the cuyes (guinea pigs) and rabbits and took some up for Moo who bangs against the cage door until I do so.

I don't know what's happened to me, but suddenly I like soup. If you don't recall, I eat soup about two times a day, every day. It's a very old custom in the Sierra...they've been boiling food since pre-Hispanic times. Because we're in Austral winter and it's so icy cold here every day, I'm beginning to look forward to the hot, liquidy meal. So this morning, I prepped lunch like my host does. I minced carrots, chopped up "white carrots" (parsnips), and added "white onions" (green onions in the States). Put in some oil, salt, and a ton of my spices from home including ginger, curry, tumeric, garam masala, and garlic. It smelled incredible!

After enjoying my garlic naan with a cup of white chocolate chai from New Mexico (thanks Becca!!), I got started on laundry. Sure, it was drizzling rain and icy cold outside, but I really had to wash a load. And it took me about two hours doing everything by hand. In the end, my railing was completely filled with sopping wet clothes that may never get dry, but at least they're clean.

Knit for a little while and ate my fantastic lunch!

Yesterday in Riobamba, my host handed me a box of lettuce seedlings when I got on the bus home. She'd stay behind, but she asked me to plant them in the finca if the weather was good enough. But the rain continued all day, drizzling off and on until around 3, right when I had decided to make naan yet again and drink more tea. I gobbled the meal down and rushed to get ready to take advantage of the weather window. But right when I was about to go, clouds rolled in and it started raining again. I figured I might as well go - got to get myself out more anyway.

There's a steep mud path around the corner of my house that leads up to what I call the "high road," another road that parallels the main road through town. Because it had been raining all night and all morning, apparently pretty significantly, the mud path was extra muddy. It was actually ridiculously muddy. Mud came up to my ankles but luckily I had the foresight to buy and bring Xtra Tufs...dozens of people have told me they want my boots. It's the insulation that makes them special here. Icy, wet mud does nothing to me except make one giant slip 'n slide down a mountain. Step by cautious step I made my way up. I imagined falling and sliding all they way back down to my house, and imagined that might actually be possible. A few folks stopped to chat with me, including a neighbor who loves to constantly tell me I need an Ecuadorian boyfriend.

Without falling, I made it to the top and continued on down the flat high road, stopping to talk now and then with people passing by. Generally though, the high road is sparsely populated and makes for a beautiful, thoughtful walk. The view is incredible of both the surrounding mountains and the town below with people working on their farmlands in between. Further down the high road, there are no more houses (there weren't many before), just forest and grazing land. It's so steep, even the livestock has an issue existing on the slopes. A couple weeks ago, a horse lost its balance and tumbled all the way down to the high road where its skeleton now lies.

Halfway there, eucalyptus trees begin lining the path. The mountainside of the road is an irrigation ditch babbling with clear water. From up there, you can hear the Rio Alao rushing below, a constant whoosing, roaring sound that fills the valley.

It takes about a half hour to reach my host's plot of land. There's a tiny wood bridge over the irrigation channel that leads up a short, steep path to the locked gate. Beyond is a narrow, long strip of extremely steep land that begins with a grassy field. As you ascend, you come across old fields that once hosted choclo (a type of corn). Keep going up, and you pass some potatoes about ready for harvesting. Keep going up, and footing gets increasingly difficult. Pass a cleared field ready to be tilled, and finally, you'll reach the bit of land we had just readied for planting. It's so steep, the dirt is literally falling off of it. A couple days ago, we planted cabbage, cauliflower, and lettuce seedlings along with carrot seeds. There was a bit of space left, so my host wanted to fill it with the lettuce seedlings. So I got to work, poking holes and sticking the 50 seedlings in them.

The weather kept clearing up as I continued, and when I finished, I was stunned at the view. Up valley, a rainbow formed. Wisps of clouds clung to the mountains which always makes them look so much bigger. Patches of blue sky appeared, and gray storm clouds could be seen many miles down valley.

Going downhill is so much trickier. If I fell, really fell, I would end up like the horse. I slipped a few times in the slick grass, but I held on tight to the blades when I did. I hated to leave that perch and the view, but I met a lot of really nice people on the way back. One of them was the president of the community, always a friendly face. I've been wanting to meet up with him for ages to talk but we hadn't been able to until that chance encounter. I asked if I could speak at the next meeting, so hopefully that will happen. On the way down the mud slip 'n slide, about halfway down, a couple working on their garden stopped me to chat.

My host still wasn't back. I fed all the animals again and heated up the soup and tea. When I finished eating, she arrived - and called me "Cristinita," always a good sign. She was delighted that I had cooked, and especially that there was dinner for her. I'm not sure I've ever seen her so happy, actually, and she gushed over the soup - said it was delicious about five times. Between the ready made meal, feeding the animals, and planting the lettuce, she was extraordinarily happy. She talked to me for over an hour, reflecting on a 20-year-old story of when she had cancer and how it was treated.

When she went to bed and I went upstairs, I noticed the night sky was actually perfectly clear. Eager to see some Perseids, I brought up my sleeping bag and flashlight to the roof where I thought I had the best chance of blocking out the town's lights. The Milky Way bridged the north and south sides of the valley wall, and uncountable numbers of stars filled the sky. I brought out my SLR and balanced it pointing up on a couple pieces of wood. Each open shutter attempt took an aching 70 seconds. The D300 doesn't have a remote shutter control like the D60, one of its major flaws, and I don't have its shutter cable, so I sat there each time holding the shutter open as still as I could. Despite the shakiness and light artifacts from the town, I took one of my best night sky photos ever:

So...that's a good day.

Friday, July 8, 2011


1. Went to the other side of the river to meet the teachers and students. Totally different welcome there. No handshakes, kisses on cheeks, no smiles, no introductions. Nothing.

2. At a parent-teacher meeting for the end of the school year, my teacher friend helped me announce to the group the formation of an 'eco-club' if they're interested. It received an enthusiastic 'yes' all around, and another teacher has volunteered to lead the group. Also, she slid in the suggestion of me leading a English class for kids entering the colegio (high school). That was even more well-received.

3. I started reading my first book in Spanish (White Fang, or Colmillo Blanco). A neighbor girl saw me reading it and said she loves stories and asked if she could look through it. Hmm. I said maybe we could start a community library, and her eyes lit up and, smiling, said "Yes!!" The next day she told me her friends wanted one too, and another girl walking by said her grandmother loves the idea. So...we'll be figuring that one out soon!

4. I'm pretty ok at knitting socks. The word has spread, and now people are coming up to me with their hands together as if in prayer, begging me to knit them a pair. Some have even offered to buy them from me, but for a few reasons (number one being that we're not allowed to make money while serving), I had to turn that down. But! Trading is fair game. I asked one woman if she could teach me how to 'hilar', or spin wool, in return for a pair of my knit socks - she said "Of course!" It's one of the many Andean skills I would love to take with me.

5. Another skill I'm hoping to learn is how to play the quena, the vertical pre-hispanic flute of the Andes. It's a gorgeous, haunting flute that I sort of know how to play, but I may be taking formal lessons each Saturday to learn it properly.

6. Started my garden...again. A couple weeks after I first got here, the school had a small minga for clearing land plots to garden. The director gave me a small plot to plant my seeds from the Peace Corps seed bank. Unfortunately, only some of the pea plants grew and none of the onions or chives ever made an appearance (it might have something to do with the fact that the seeds were years old). Also, the pea plants are growing at a snail's pace. Two months later, and they're still just five inches high at most. Does it have something to do with the altitude and cold? Anyway, the other day I decided to find a pair of gloves and buy a bunch of fresh seeds in Riobamba. I had to clear a considerably large stretch of dirt that was completely overtaken by ortiga, or stinging nettle, then build up neat rows, and plant carrot, radish, cabbage, and beet seeds. Here's hoping something grows!

7. I spent my first night out of site and accidentally encountered two major fiestas! Went to Alausi where they were having an enormous festival for San Pedro, and hopped on one of the world's train engineering marvels to see La Nariz del Diablo. Got back in time to catch a bus back to Riobamba, but not in time for a bus back to my site so I had to stay the night. They, too, were having a festival in honor of the Chimborazo province anniversary founding. Not only did they have vaca loca (a person with a fireball-shooting cardboard cow carried on top, dancing and charging people around it as it showers sparks over them), they had impressive fireworks and one of those scaffolds they love to light on fire that also, of course, shoots out sparks and fireworks. Being the night of the 3 of July, I think I got a taste of home for the 4th!

8. Moo knows how to escape AND get back into the cage... this last part is still a mystery to me and you'll understand why if you've seen the pictures of her elevated, top-opened cage. She also learned how to jump up and on the bed to annoy me for carrots. And if I don't wake up before 7 a.m., it's fair game for her to start rattling the cage door as loudly as possible to get me going. Also, she's more or less litter trained!! Yea!! Happy one month 'versary with a rabbit.

9. I talk a lot about the cold, but it's even colder now. My host just said to me as she muttered the traditional 'Ahchachay!' - "It's going to get colder. But you shouldn't be afraid. You have to be strong. The cold will make you stronger." Shiver. I keep reminding myself over and over, especially walking back from the school just a short distance away as wind pummelled icy droplets of rain in my face: Mongolian volunteers have it worse. That sort of makes it better.

10. My host got more chickens! And as is her usual bad luck with them, the rooster escaped the day she got him, before I even got to see him. But the hen stayed, and so far her 10 little pollitos (bitty chickens) are alive and well. I think I amuse my host because I'm so fascinated with usually mundane farm animals. Oh WOW a piglet! I have to pet it! Whoa, a llama! Those chicks are so CUTE!

11. I haggled for three things fairly successfully (in my opinion, but my host would say I was robbed for being a gringa) at the market in Riobamba: a sweet black and white wool shoulder bag that's perfect for books that I've wanted a while, a dark green velvet sheet that lower elevation Quichua women would use as a skirt, and a beautiful black and white hand woven belt to tie it up (the artisan said he can make four a day...and I bought one for $5). Now, to wear the skirt...it's pretty cool but the thought of wearing something that could so easily fall off is semi-frightening.

12. Finally: Cotopaxi, early September. YES.