It's been a while, I know. Here I am, celebrating month four in site as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. Part of why I haven't written in a while is... I'm convinced volunteers are bipolar unless they get lucky with a 100% compatible site and are 100% culturally adapted.
I'm not, which is normal. I have Americanness that will never go away no matter how much I learn about Andean cultures, no matter how fluently I communicate in Spanish or Quichua, no matter anything...I will alway stick out. The idea, however, is to adapt and learn as much as possible in order to function efficiently in a foreign society. The magic word is 'integrate'. It doesn't necessary mean donning a heavy black wool skirt and hard wide-brimmed white hat (I live in a culture where dress codes aren't rigid; instead they're used a social identity), but it definitely means meeting people and making friends.
In four months I've already had my share of tiny victories and big disappointments. It's a testament to the fact that my community will move along when it wants to, and do what it wants to do - they're not on my schedule, I'm on theirs. The other day I was sitting on my steps thinking to myself that I'm not doing anything, and after being here a third of a year, I couldn't see myself doing anything much in the future. I was struggling to get a counterpart to come with me to the Reconnect workshop in Quito in September. My Ministerio friends were waiting for weeks on an answer if one of them could go, but when my community heard about that, they insisted someone who actually lived in the community should go. I fully agreed, and the secretary immediately volunteered...until I told her it was for three days. No one else stepped forward despite me reinforcing the fact that it was fully paid for.
My program directors called me three times asking if someone was going yet...and, frustrated, I kept having to say no.
About two weeks ago I noticed that something was extremely different. I didn't want to jump to conclusions by saying the seasons flopped in a single day, but now I'm not so cautious. One day, the sun came out and it just felt...warmer. I went up to the roof and soaked it in for maybe an hour until clouds came in and, each time one passed in front of the sun, it felt like the temperature plummeted 5 degrees or so. I also noticed the position of the sun rising above the mountains and setting down the valley. It seemed almost instant that we had more sunlight.
During most of May, June, and July we had about two very patchy days of chilly sun, and a lot of rain and wind. Suddenly, for the next two weeks, we had mostly sunny skies (with, of course, copious cloudcover especially in the afternoon). One of these lovely days I used to get to the top of Torre, meaning "Tower", the mountain I live on. I gleefully found it was 14,200 feet high, 4,000 feet above my community. But clouds stretched beyond and covered up the active Sangay volcano. And today, we woke to a completely blue sky, the first I'd seen in many months. It was dazzling!
My host left for the day and I spent my time enjoying the sun. I made (real) coffee from Jipijapa, thanks to Caroline, and a huge plate of naan bread that I devoured cross-legged on my cement balcony glassing over El Torre's beautiful grassy folds that sit above the worked land, too thin and steep for farming and dangerous for grazing (stories of horses tumbling down the mountain aren't all that uncommon). I juggled between a Spanish verb workbook, Nepali practice, and Three Cups of Tea which my parents sent me in a package that miraculously arrived two days before my birthday, over two months after they sent it. I'm really enjoying Three Cups of Tea, even more than Stones for Schools, because it covers the part of Mortenson's inital cultural adaptation, mistakes, and surprises that are different than my own but very relative. I've been getting back into reading after spending the last couple of months semi-obsessed with watching the extremely limited movie selection on my computer. I opened up my PC for Kindle program and, on a curious whim based on alphabetical organization, I started reading George Bush's "Decision Points". If I'm still in a political mood, I plan on following it with "The Audacity of Hope," "The Revolution: A Manifesto," "Bush At War," "Obama's Wars," "End the Fed," "Fiasco," "My Life," and "We Who Dared to Say No to War". So long as my computer doesn't quit me, I have a fountain of literature to choose from.
Around 3 p.m. when the wind picked up and clouds began rolling in, I went out to get some surveys done. I wanted to check on my garden first - the peas I planted months ago are finally blooming, and the radishes are maturing a lightning speed. A week ago, I took a bite of the first successful veggie I ever grew, an extremely peppery radish. I was disappointed to see that someone dug up all the school's carrots, even though they weren't yet as big as they could have been. I went around pulling up a few that remained to give to Moo and brought them home.
I could have stayed in, but I felt I had to get a least a couple surveys done so I went back out. Along the way, I met two men sitting on the low church wall talking and waiting for the bus. One was an employee at the Oficina Tecnica for Parque Nacional Sangay, and another was someone I knew of but didn't actually know, the father of the school director (my counterpart on paper, but he was seriously injured a couple months ago and I haven't seen him since). He asked the usual "Para donde?" which is almost as confusing as the also common "De viene?" Just out for a walk, I responded. And suddenly he launched into comparing the two mountains surrounding us as two towers (being named "El Torre"), like Twin Towers that won't fall...he was using them as a sort of bizarre allegory to say the towers here wouldn't fail the community if they used them for tourism.
I was really, really confused. But he continued: They have this Centro de Interpretacion (of resources, not language) that the community is trying to open and use, but it's no where near being ready. I already knew about it, but wasn't aware that some people have strong desires to see this center be further developed and finally opened. Was I going somewhere in a hurry, he asked. Of course not...so we three wandered down to the site of the Interpretation Center. And I saw it in a different light, having finally been introduced to the grounds by someone extremely enthusiastic about its potential. His enthusiasm was infectous. We followed a level, twisting path that I realized was wide and level enough for a car and connected to the main road. My tourguide explained his vision for lining the small road with native trees growing in the electric company's vivero nearby. The flat grassy area would serve as a parking space. A large, glisteningly new satellite dish sits fenced in outside the Center, ready to work but so far it's been useless. This man and others I've spoken with would love to see the Center stocked with computers hooked to the internet for community use. Peering into the Center for the first time, I was shocked. It's shining, brand-new. It's got sealed wood flooring and white walls, unfinished interpretive exhibits, maps and signs. My guide listed all kinds of adventurous outdoors activities for visitors to enjoy while supplimenting the income of community residents who might like to help. "There, there, and there," he said, pointing out what he hoped would be the three future sites of tourist cabins nearby.
"Hagamos!" he said, "Let's do this!", taking my hand with more relieved enthusiasm than anything else. "Trabajemos!" "Let's work together!" With our combined talents, we could finally get the Center up and running, he said. Is this maybe, finally, really, why I'm here? Have I found my main project and my counterpart? I invited him to the workshop in Quito, half expecting him to say it was too long to be away from work in the community. But surprisingly, he just responded by shaking my hand, a definitive "yes." As we walked back to the road, I told him, "I'm here to serve your community and I would love to work with you. I want to see this Interpretation Center working." He patted me hard on the back, saying to both me and the Ministerio man, "We're going to do this." The Ministerio man said his organization was still investigating if he could go to the workshop too. And I didn't say he couldn't anymore - if the three of us went together, it would be even more helpful because it appears to be a joint project.
I went home floating, thrilled that after all the dead ends and searching, maybe my career in the Peace Corps was starting. I went back to the balcony to read with the last rays of the evening and, instead of way down valley like two weeks before, a thunderstorm rolled comfortingly overhead. My host brought us up two bowls of popcorn and as I focused on talking with her, a chicken jumped into the bowl in my lap. My neighbor waved to us going up his house's steps and, with a big smile, just heard him say "Cristinita!"
I realized I hadn't been called 'gringita' in my community in months.