"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, September 17, 2011

After Reconnect...more training

After Cotopaxi I began designing a hard training program for myself to get back stronger and healthier. Part of beauty of training for me is that I live in the most perfect site for an altitude workout.

About four times a week, hopefully, I will be doing a loop right from my house at 10,200 feet up the mud path to a wide dirt path that wraps gently up the ridge for a long while and switchbacks over the top. On the other side the path continues more or less level to a tiny settlement called Alamohausu, technically part of Alao, for the entire way back east. There I jump on another upward-sloping mud trail back up to a higher saddle (the same starting location for climbing up Torre) at 12,200 feet and descend down the direct route to Alao... it's a steep shin-killer but good practice.

If I don't stop a lot and rest or take pictures, I can do the loop in 3 hours flat. And people here don't believe that's at all possible. Just today, Friday, I was about halfway to the first ridge crossing when I met two women who seemed...shocked. Rains were coming down the valley and would reach us soon. It was already 3 p.m. They were convinced I wouldn't make it to the village and I would certainly not make it home. And I blew their minds when I said I made the journey in three hours yesterday. Not possible, they shook their heads. Hmmm. I continued on and, to my amusement, I was back home three hours after I started, almost to the minute.

One guy I keep meeting is a little hilarious. He asks me where I'm going (everyone I meet asks me this), and I say I'm walking for fun and for exercise, and I'm going to Alamohausu. "Noooo," is his only response. Most people have similar feelings and think hiking up and around mountains for fun is ridiculous unless it's for work. But there are some who 'get' it. Today arriving back in town, I passed one of my favorite residents who always greets me warmly. He of course asked what I'd been up to, and he surprised me by saying 'Going up Torre is some good exercise." Yes! He got it.

Yesterday a group of five guys who were at a minga in Alamohausu waited for me at the second saddle to walk down together. They drilled me with question after question about the U.S., Alaska, my vegetarianism, religion, my relationships, my lack of siblings...they covered all the awkward bases. According to them I'm really strange: I don't eat meat, I'm really confused about religion, I have no husband (or even boyfriend) or children, and I'm an only child. But they were impressed about my hiking around and called me 'strong' twice which was nice to hear I suppose.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

After Reconnect

I felt really good during our first in-service training, called Reconnect. My counterpart and I developed some good ideas to start our first project and it seemed we could start on that immediately when we returned home. I enjoyed seeing all my old friends from training, and spent a week living in my old training house with my Tumbaco family that I missed a lot. It was warm, comfortable, and I was surrounded by people I knew and who knew me. At the end of the week, another volunteer and I attempted to climb Cotopaxi and although we didn't summit, and though it was cold and I felt not so great, after the climb I felt fine and wished I was back on it.

On each of the rides back to my site I met someone really friendly and fascinating. On a Quito trolley I met a woman named Flor who asked me a bunch of questions about my ice ax lashed to my bag. On the bus to Riobamba I sat next to a man who loved to laugh and joke - it started when I sat down and took out a ball of yarn to begin knitting some socks. I saw him quizzically watching me and I said in Spanish with a sort of smirk, "Why not?" We talked off and on the entire 3.5 hours and pretty soon he invited me to visit some of the remote Quichua communities he lives by on the slopes of Chimborazo. We'll see if I end up going or not but their festivals sound like a lot of fun... having not lost as many traditions as my own community has.

At the Dolorosa bus station I was buying Cheetos (yes!! Real Cheetos, puffy and delicious and everything!) when my host Maria snuck up on me from behind and poked me with both hands on each side of my stomach. I'd never seen her do anything so impish and to me it was hilarious, especially because she'd just found out how incredibly ticklish I am.

Our bus left in an hour and I'd brought out the beginnings of my knitted sock again to work on. A girl sat in front of us on the pseudo-seat and stared at my work, entranced. Halfway to Pungala she spoke up and asked what I was making, and our conversation continued. A woman I'd met on another bus ride also from Pungala sat next to her with her baby tied on her back and told the first girl all about me - it was incredible what she remembered. I realized again at that moment that I'm no longer usually gawked at, and if I am, there's usually someone around to jump in and explain that I'm not exactly a foreigner anymore... that I live out there in the campo with them too. It's comforting to know that little by little, I'm blending in. Word is spreading.

But now back in site, I felt a little drained. I had all these hopes and ideas but I still wasn't exactly sure how to accomplish them... it's a catch 22 in Peace Corps: you want to do stuff (especially to feel useful and not be bored all the time), but you can only do what your community wants to do. And showing them what you can do and what you want to do is sometimes tricky, especially when you're trying to do something they really don't want to do and are too polite to tell you.

Back here on my first day, I did the usual: made alfredo, knit, read a bit, washed clothes, went for a nice hike up and over the mountain. When I got back, I put a pot of water on to boil and heard a clang on the door. It was Ivan, the son of the (former?) school director who served as his dad's substitute last school year. He launched into a very enthusiastic speech about how he wanted to work on the eco-club with me during the summer but he was too busy building houses, how now he wants to really create this club, the ideas he has for it (backpacking to El Placer and bringing in other Volunteers to help [hint hint, he actually said this, come visit!!!], planting gardens, learning eco-tourism English, drawing, etc.), what more we can do for the community such as technological instruction (he went to school for journalism like me), arts, music (reviving traditional Ecuadorian folk music), etc. I'm pretty sure my jaw was dropped the whole time. Maybe not. But just hearing him talk so excitedly made me really excited too. And the funniest part was when he said, "I've been thinking, and my dad told me I should talk with you, that here you are in the community and we're not even using you." YES. Yes! Use me! That is exactly why I'm here. I told him I would write out my ideas and give them to him soon.

So things keep getting better. "Development work is slow," is the mantra. And it's true. Especially in an indigenous community like mine. You have to get trust, prove you're there to stay a while, get out walking even if you're not walking anywhere in particular (answering the obligatory "?Adonde va?" is tricky), talk to people, go to meetings, visit the school, help with farmwork, learn some Quichua, and then maybe you're in.

Monday, September 12, 2011


One of the great things about being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador is that we live in a country saturated by snowy volcanoes, and if you have the requisite experience/altitude adjustment, you can climb them.

Two of us plus a guide attempted Cotopaxi Saturday night to Sunday morning. A driver our guide knows took us into the park and up to the parking lot (15,088 feet) for $30 one way...a bit pricey huh? From there we hiked up to the refuge that sits at 15,744 feet. We unloaded our gear and claimed beds, then made our way up along the trail towards the glacier which sits an hour and a half away...much, much further than it had been in the past. I felt good, enthusiastic, sure we'd be seeing the summit in the morning.

When we got back everyone was busy preparing dinner, each wood table team retrieving a metal pitcher of boiling water for tea. I didn't realize we had free access to a climber's kitchen - if I had, I would have brought a box of noodles and a mountain of alfredo sauce packets. But luckily I didn't have to get by on packaged snack foods because our guide shared a bowl of quinoa and mushroom soup with each of us.

I was tired and ready for sleep at 8 p.m. But the second I laid down horizontal, I felt the altitude and breathing suddenly felt not so easy anymore. It took a while to get to sleep and when it happened, I'm sure I only slept for winks at a time. The wind often woke me up and made me anxious about waking up and looking at the conditions outside.

At what must have been 11 or 11:30 p.m., a team got up and began noisily gearing up to climb. When they headed out, it was about 12 a.m. and time for us to get up and ready. We geared up, drank water, ate a little, and headed out.

Sad to say we didn't make the Cotopaxi summit due to two reasons. The one I'm most disappointed in is myself - at around 5400 feet I crashed, just lost all my energy. I'm not sure what happened. Breathing was hard, of course, but I don't think that's what got me. But the other reason turned back almost all the other teams: only one team navigated the large crevasse at around 17,700. Our guide told us to get across, we'd need to leap over a gap and land on an ice wall, vertical climb up it, and cross another gap with a wood board...and cross a sketchy snowbridge that our guide believed was in danger of collapsing and might not be there when we returned, which meant commitment to an alternate route on the way down. We said no, and decided to try looking for a way around the crack. But we found other teams probing for the end of the crevasse but they either couldn't find it or it ran out at a spot no one wanted to climb up from. It was a little confounding climbing on the day that this obstacle was discovered to be present or worse than it had been before.

So after scratching our heads for a while and freezing, we turned back. One by one each of the other teams followed and soon there was a long trail of headlamps snaking back down the ice, and then of course the weather turned a bit to ice cold wind and frost. Back at the refuge when the team(s?) that made the summit got back, the guide even told us the crossing was a little hairy and risky.

So... hours later after leaving the refuge where's the one place I really wanted to be? The mountain. I'm taking that as a good sign that being dog tired, freezing and frustrated with a tricky crossing, I still want to go back and try it again. I'm going to make a training plan and stick to it. Like I said, my main problem was exhaustion (beyond a mental block, this physically wasn't surmountable) and breathing. I think my muscles are fine but I'll still work on them... I don't have the slightest ache to indicate I was climbing a mountain yesterday.

Until next time!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reconnect and a mountain

Hello from the house of my training host family in Tumbaco, Ecuador. We're back in town four months after swear-in for our first in-service training called Reconnect. The idea of the workshop is to learn how to better work with our counterparts (the leaders in our communities) and get some other work done like making fun recycled art (I'm excited to do what I learned even just on my own!) and receiving immunizations and such.

It was very strange coming back to Tumbaco, very much like coming home. I left Monday morning on the 6 a.m. bus to Riobamba, hardly sleeping a wink the night before because I always get a little neurotic when I travel nowadays. I had to do laundry the day before despite the rain, and of course my clothes didn't dry so I had them draped all over my room. They still didn't dry and ended up bringing a backpack of wet clothes to drape around my room in Tumbaco. I piled a bowl of rabbit chow in Moo's cage and stuffed it full of fresh grass... hopefully my host will feed her, but I'm really worried she's not going to be ok.

The trip was easy and fluid but very long. Two hours to Riobamba, four to Quito, one or two hours riding the trolley buses to the right terminal, and 45 minutes to Tumbaco. My counterpart arrived just after me. We took the bus back but in the morning, my little mini cluster of volunteers met on our old street corner, stopped by the bakery we always visited each morning during training, and walked the hour journey to the training center on the bike trail. I thought we'd never get to walk that trail together again...it was just like "old times."

This week of training has flown by and already tomorrow, Friday, is the last day. After lunch, volunteers go back to their sites or on to vacations.

As for me...

I'm climbing COTOPAXI!!!!!

Cotopaxi is Ecuador's most frequently climbed mountain, an active volcano 19,347 feet high. We'll be staying at the refuge (which is located just over 15,000 feet) Saturday night and getting an alpine start on Sunday morning. If we feel good and have cooperating weather, we should be on the summit at dawn. I'm ridiculously excited, but also sanely nervous. Should be fun!