"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."

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The mountains

This is my favorite part of each month - the one or two days I can climb a mountain (or two). This month a fellow volunteer from the coast and I are heading south from Quito to climb El Corazon and Illiniza Norte.

Corazon should be straight forward, though long, and Illiniza Norte could be either very easy or very difficult - depending on weather. It could be dry... or there could be a meter of snow to slog through. Peace Corps had us get a guide for Norte because there´s a part called the Paso de la Muerte, or the Pass of Death. Apparently it´s a bit exposed and sometimes conditions require the use of a rope. So we´ll see. Our first guide, Edgar Vaca, the one who took us on Cotopaxi, cancelled on us just a few days ago saying he forgot he had a climb again on Cotopaxi. So...I won´t be hiring him again. We called around every number we could find and found a number of guides willing to take us last minute (at a heavy cost) so we found a replacement and we´re set to go.

Gone climbing, back soon.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

House hunting

So the adventure began at the community president's house. I already knew I wouldn't live there; I wanted to live alone. But I humored him and let myself be walked upstairs. Except someone...his mother-in-law, mother, whatever, didn't seem to want me there at all and was way less than friendly. The president seemed annoyed with her too. We walked up the cement stairs, slick and wet with moss, to the second floor where we paused. The president started to point out a couple other houses in the area when something warm hit my face. The naive part of my brain immediately thought someone had just tossed a bit of hot water off the roof but the truth surfaced just after - a bird had shat on my face. The president laughed in disbelief and I stood with mouth agape, hoping he would offer something...a towel...anything... but he didn't and I wiped off the crap with my sleeve.

We didn't even see his upstairs room which is fine. We walked up the road just a couple houses down to a white house lacking a gate. The president asked the woman coming out if we could have a look at her free room but she refused because they don't have a bathroom. Hmm.

I took a walk by myself as the sunlight faded up the road towards the park to see a brand-new house that someone told me was unoccupied. I was fairly sure which house it was, but I couldn't recall if it was before or after the park office. So I walked well beyond it to what is pretty much the end of the community, and turned around and walked back in the dark. Sure enough, it was the house I was thinking of. It's far from the 'center' of town but still in a cluster of homes. Unfortunately it is a bit of a large house...two stories, just built, freshly painted with new windows and a door incoming next week, fridge, cooking range...apparently it's all set and ready to go. Except it's got no one to live in it. I guess the story is it belongs to a family living in the States and they sent money to Ecuador to build it. When they're coming back, I have no idea but I have to find out. As far as options go, this one is sounding like the best. And I'll be honest, it would be really, really nice to have tile floors.


As I sit here on my bed writing this entry, a meeting for the community's women workers is beginning. They're a part of my counterpart's project I'm helping him to execute, and my job is to collect all the names, dates of birth (just the day and month) and identification numbers which will be used to assign them to a specific species of Andean plant that they are responsible to care for.

So my host just visited me about 15 times bringing me identification cards to copy down. But this time she didn't come up; two other women did, knocking shyly on my door. Come in, come in, I said, it's ok. They entered with more of my coaxing, unsure if it was remotely ok for them to be in my space. One handed me her information written on a piece of thick paper and the other toyed with all my knitting projects laying around (I'm one of those impatient, indecisive knitters). They first saw a pair of long mittens - my first ever, actually - and wandered over to my half-knit sweater. You have to teach us how to make these things, the older woman told me. About two times a month, she added. I said, "Great! Whenever you like," which I thought to myself is always the prevailing issue here...getting people to commit and agree on a time. Then I handed them the ball of "yarn" made from a plastic bag and said I could show them how to make it and crochet with it. The older woman jumped on it and said, "Yes! Like make a shoulder bag!" Exactly.

At that point they saw my kitten curled up in her favorite place ever...in my lap...and cooed over her, laughing at the name Misi. I'm not a Quichua speaker so Misi doesn't sound stupid, but I imagine if I ever met a cat named Cat in the U.S., I would wonder. They asked what I planned to do with her when I left to visit home. Another volunteer said she'd take care of her, so that's no problem. Then they asked about my rabbit. Well...I haven't got a clue. Eat her! they said in unison. The image of Moo's super soft black and white pelt hanging on the wire clothesline popped into my head and I felt a little ill.


So now it's a few days later. My counterpart in the park found me (reluctantly) an unoccupied house that's up the road from the office...which means it's super far from what is essentially the center of town. But it's in a really gorgeous, quiet area and apparently it's got everything I'd need. I haven't seen inside yet and progress on that is going slowly. So slowly that I didn't find a house before 20 November when I pay the rent for the following month.

But now I'm confused again. Maria is being friendly again and with greater frequency is allowing me to choose if I want to eat what she makes. Not frequent enough though. And it's true; I enjoy a lot of things here that I would have to do without or spend a lot of money on in another house... mainly things like a bed and covers. Since I live in a cold place, I'd need to buy piles of blankets and those wool and fleece blankets are super expensive here.

What to do...?!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A (very long) essay on progress and life

As I write here in bed at night, it's pouring outside. It's also icy cold and I'm sick...again. I'm getting sick about every month. People here say it's because of the cold, but I think it's a combination of things - the cold, the ease that germs are passed around (coughing into the air, picking constantly runny noses, etc), not very good nutrition (soup, potatoes, rice, soup, potatoes, rice...), and large amounts of stress.

I really didn't think this would be a stressful job, but it actually is the most stressful I've had. Well...maybe in a different way from grad school 'cause that was pretty stressful too. But that includes taking complex coffee orders from pushy mathematics professors during coffee rush hour, lining up hundreds of children and getting them to stay in a precise order for picture day, being the only baker on duty for a major holiday food event in sub-freezing weather, holding a pole still and upright in a thigh-deep rushing glacial river, scanning hundreds of theses page by page day after day, etc. etc. (I also have a fair share of some of the easiest/most fun jobs out there...and holding a pole still in subfreezing glacial rivers is fun too).

This one is hard because I'm constantly trying to get people motivated and enthusiastic about something, anything. It's hard because I'm ridiculously bored and so I feel pretty worthless. My host has no problem telling me that too, which makes me feel even worse.

Last Tuesday was, to me, the most exciting community meeting yet because it had an entirely environmental theme. My counterparts from the national park were there with a very passionate community member. This guy gave the first speech, meant to rally the community together and use me as a resource because...hey... that's why I'm here and my schedule is wide open. I was thrilled hearing this until I looked out to the members present. No one seemed to be paying him any attention except the leadership up front. Maybe no one actually cares about why I'm here. Maybe I shouldn't be here, I thought.

He went on to discuss his ideas for eco-tourism in the community. Some ideas are fantastic, like building cabanas for the Centro Interpretivo in the sierran style (called a "chosa" it's a mud wall building with a straw roof that many people here use for cooking or smoking food). Others were really bizarre. He again told his story comparing New York's twin towers (that were destroyed by Saddam Hussein...) with the two mountains sandwiching the community that are also called "The Towers". Only, he said, these towers won't fall down or fail the community. One of his ideas was to try either hanggliding or zip-lining across the valley from mountain to mountain. Hanggliding, cost aside, is doable. Ziplining is certainly not. Neither will happen. Then he began describing something I didn't understand...a word he kept repeating was unfamiliar to me...when he excused himself to go get 'it', whatever he'd been talking about. Five minutes later, he came back in walking very slowly, carrying with the most intense care a model carriage holding a doll, drawn by a white horse with pink glittery hair. He approached the front desk and set it down slowly. He went on to say they could make these carriages to hold six tourists at a time to ride up and down the road.

At least he's enthusiastic. I think we can count on him to at least try to get others to care and to help finally open the community's Centro Interpretivo.

My counterpart from the park made his speech next describing more potential future projects, and proposed a meeting on Monday to discuss Sociobosque, a program they're trying to introduce here. I have no idea if anyone at that meeting will go, but I know myself, the two park guards, and probably the community president and my host will go. His main project focus with me is creating a solstice garden by the Centro Interpretivo. The idea is each member of the women's workers association here in the community will be the guardian of one species of native plant (and will even get their own t-shirt apparently), and there will be 52 plants - one for each week of the year. The plants will be arranged in an ellipse relative to the sun in some way. I did a bit of reading online and found we could build a analemmatic sundial...maybe inside the elipse of plants. Whatever works out, they want it to be spritual and to honor their heritage. Quichua people have a holiday - Inti Raymi - on the summer solstice so they have a special interest in the movement of the Earth around the Sun.

So that meeting gave me a bit to think about at least. I'm also working on a program proposal for the school director to teach kids about Leave No Trace in Parque Nacional Sangay. The director brings kids to some apparently excellent hot springs in the park called El Placer about once or twice a year. I'd like those trips to become something even more than a hike and I think LNT ("Sin Dejar Huellas") is a great theme for them. The only problem (and it's not really a problem because I agree) is my counterpark in the park is requiring the kids to be at least 15 years old...but then he relented and said 12 at least. 15 years would have been a problem because his school kids are younger than that - not quite high school age. So hopefully the group he wants to take is old enough, and they want to try out my Sin Dejar Huellas idea (just posted about it here on the Green Sheets blog).

Finally... I've decided for sure I want to move out. I've been living in this house for over half a year with this woman who makes me absolutely insane. She's almost always in a terrible mood, she criticizes me on everything, she has me do thankless chores, she doesn't give a crap about my life and has no interest in talking with me (just to me), and possibly the worst is she prevents me from cooking for myself by preparing all the food for the day and guilting me into eating it despite my expressed wishes to cook my own food. The intensity of it all goes up and down...some days it's not so bad, other days I've almost got my phone in my hand to call my program manager to say I'm quitting. It all seems tied to how she feels. So I've started the search but I've given myself little time...ideally I'd like to be out by 20 November to avoid paying her up to 20 December. Somehow I don't think she's interested in prorating rent. Before now I thought I could just deal with her because I like the house, but now I need to leave in a hurry.

I've been reluctant to move because it actually is a great situation minus the occupant. I like my house, I have a cozy clean bed, it's relatively warm, I have electricty and a hot shower, a cooking range, fresh grass for Moo and a place to throw out her waste, and I feel pretty safe. Also, my host put in railings, windows, and a new steel door for me before I arrived (seems like a really nice gesture huh?). Honestly, I don't really want to leave. If my host would just listen to me and let me cook for myself, things would be peachy. Just finding somewhere is the tricky part. And probably actually moving because I've already accummulated a lot of crap. And probably definitely telling my host I'm moving which will be instantly depriving her of my monthly rent. In reality, though, she'll probably be thrilled to see me go.

It sounds like I have about three options which I get to check out this evening. One, I've heard, is living in the upstairs unit of the community president's house. I don't know anything about him or his family but I think I just totally want out of living with someone so I don't know if this will work. Another is the (very large) house of someone I know, who is apparently gone for a long time and I could serve as a caretaker. I had no idea he and his family left and I don't think I feel comfortable moving into a big empty house that they all could come back to anytime. And it's located at the top of the mud alley...by top, I mean, partway up the mountain. Not ideal. There's another house way down the road towards the national park that sounds intriguing, but the downside is that yes, it's remote, and it would take a 20 minute or so walk to get to the buses that are far from ever being on time. So I imagine that involves a lot of waiting on the very stoop I live by right now, walks in freezing rain through mud and pig poo with heavy loads from Riobamba, and being socially disconnected (like I'm really connected in the 'center' of town anyway). Meetings are from 8-12 a.m. often, so after a meeting I'd have a long, dark walk back home.

So from everything I know right now, I live in the most ideal house for me. Damn.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A random update

It's been a while, huh? Not much has happened since my last update, though. So I suppose this will be a random entry...

The same day we in Omnibus 105 were celebrating our 6 months of service (1/4 done!), someone stole my journal...the book that covered every day between August 12 and October 20. I'd made it a goal to write every day of my service so it's hardly covering how I feel when I say it was devastating to me that something I cared so much about was suddenly gone. Apparently a guy on the street had spotted me in an internet cafe and came in to watch and wait for me to neglect my bag. He told the cafe attendant that he was just waiting for someone and didn't need a computer. So he snatched it. On the only bright side, he didn't earn a penny I'm sure. My bag was beaten and dirty and had nothing of monetary value in it - no phone, cash, or cards. But it had my chewed up journal (damaged by Moo the rabbit), my old notebook with all my little random notes and scribbles from the past 6 months (including some pretty important notes), my letter from a PCV in Uganda (I at least skimmed it before it was taken), and two Sudoku books my folks had just sent me. So by now I'm guessing it all made it to a landfill somewhere.

I made a quick trip to visit my PCV friend near Bucay because I've wanted to see her site and it was the perfect time to avoid a party in my site. It was incredibly hot and humid and lush with plantlife. People were laid back and very friendly. I felt like I was in a totally different country than the Ecuador that I live in. And when I left, her host mom gave me a gigantic bag of guineos (small bananas) and oranges. Plus a cacao to try the fruit and maybe to make some very bitter chocolate out of the seeds. Plus some passionfruit and of course some red paint-like achiote seeds. The massive bag of fruit just barely made it back to my site, but I had to carry it with two arms when it began ripping. In the morning, I cut up the oranges and juiced them...the result was incredible, and now I'm back to being addicted to them. They're 10 for $1 in Riobamba, an amazing price when you compare to the U.S. prices, except I keep thinking about all the free oranges my coastal colleagues get all the time from their backyards.

Misi the kitten is doing very well. It also turns out he is a she and she is about twice as big as when I got her a month ago. She's now flea-free and getting fat (her pelvis stuck out badly when I got her and she walked with a wobble). Her favorite activities are batting my face at 5 a.m., sticking her head in my mouth when I yawn, putting her cold nose in my ear and purring when I'm sleeping, and jumping out at me from around corners with all four paws.

My garden is now no more. The kids ripped up all the radishes and left them to rot, then tore up the carrots, then all the beets. At one point they moved all my cabbage plants to their own gardens. At least they left the peas alone for the most part, until one day when the trelises were knocked over and the stems all broke. Which was yet another disappointment because the plants had plenty of pods and flowers yet to grow. I took home all the nearly mature pods to dry for seeds but I'm not sure if any of them will be able to germinate...it was all I could do. Of all the tomato seeds I planted in little bottle greenhouses, only two germinated but the plants are doing really well. It's taking them ages to grow though, and every night I bring them indoors so they don't freeze...and every morning if it's not raining or freezing still, they get taken outside. Six inches tall so far!

The weather has been slightly better than the previous 6 months. A few days of the week, mornings sometimes begin with sunshine. But usually in the afternoon the skies cloud up instantly, wind begins, and sometimes it drizzles. It's been so dry, the Rio Alao is often just a trickle by the time it leaves town when usually it's got uncrossable rapids.

I've become slightly obsessed with Ecuadorian mountaineering: reading all about the mountains on Summit Post and updating my own list of mountains visited, collecting the incredible magazine Montana ($6 each but they are very worth it for the pictures alone), training on my own hills, and planning each next trip. At the end of November, if hopefully we're approved by Peace Corps, another PCV Caroline and I will be heading to El Corazon and (hopefully...guide-willing) Illiniza Norte.

Oh, and I´m sick. Again.