"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."

Monday, October 29, 2012

Videos: Inti Raymi 2012 and my new hobby

While visiting the United States, I found a new sport that I thoroughly enjoy.  I was so into it the first week that I decided I wanted to know what it was like shooting a pumpkin.  And because there were so many deer hunters on the ranges, I decided to make a little spoof hunting one little pumpkin.

So this is from last June but because it's too hard to upload videos on the machines where I live, here's a very late film from this year's Inti Raymi celebration in Ibarra, Ecuador.  For more information on the holiday, check out: INTI RAYMI: An explosion of colors, music and indigenous traditions

We began dancing around 6 p.m. and didn't stop for one minute until around 1 a.m. when my group decided to call it quits.  The party did still go on, however, just without us.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Big long illustrated update

I realized as I write this that I am, in fact, almost halfway through my stay in my new site.  I guess it's not my 'new' site anymore, but my permanent site.

Five months has gone by fast, but I still went through the normal cultural adjustment stages.  When I arrived, everything was fantastic and new and nothing could be bad.  Then I sank into confusion about what to do.  Then I missed 'home,' home in the general term for the States.  Since then it's pretty much been up and down on a daily or hourly basis.  I still have some days where I prefer to just stay home and read or make something.  I'm grateful for the days when I have a mountain of laundry to wash by hand, or I have to spend some time forraging for plants for my rabbit.  Sometimes I walk the hour down the mountain to Apuela for internet even though someone in town offers his computer and internet for an hourly fee.  I just like to go. 

I've focused completely on trash management, at first only on accident.  I think it started when I made my recycled art projects on the benches outside one of the two stores in town.  The store owner started making her own folded chip bag wallet, then others picked up on it.  I did just a couple workshops at the afternoon kids' group and more adults began their own projects.  Once I began teaching recycled art in the school, many parents and their families got interested and started their projects.

I've also been helping out in the tree nursery, but so far progress has been pretty disappointing.  I can only convince the other workers to do something if there's a tourism group coming to visit.  We tried moving the workday from Friday to Monday and tried to assign a daily schedule to water the trees (only 15 minutes!) but nothing worked.  Now it's pretty much just me and another American volunteer who are watering the trees every day so they don't die.

The tree nursery is really interesting though.  First, it's a joy to see seeds germinate and near-dead twigs come blooming back to life with the copious water we bring.  And with that comes more wildlife.  One tree, a chinchin as it's known, is host to the larva of a big yellow butterfly.  Its larva are green and spiky and have a colorful purple, green or pink crysallis.  I used to take some home to watch:

I haven't travelled much at all since moving sites.  Technically there's a rule in Peace Corps that says if you move sites, you can't take vacation for three months.  Which was fine because I didn't have any money to climb mountains.  Pretty sad actually.  But I for sure didn't pass up the fantastic whale migration whose hub is Puerto Lopez.  It didn't disappoint this year and we even visited Isla de la Plata to glimpse blue-footed boobies (and red-footed boobies and Nazca boobies).  It was a nice break...

When I returned home, my family celebrated my birthday!  It was a wonderful surprise complete with cake brought in from 'outside'.  As you can see, it didn't completely survive the three-hour car ride:

Last month I began working on a recycling project.  There had been a program before my time but it didn't take.  My plan was to imitate another Peace Corps Volunteer's successful project in Santo Domingo by holding a recycling contest in the school.  My project ended up being a little different than hers as a couple months ago a group of volunteers literally filled my room with donations of toys, art supplies, and school supplies.  I was at a loss for what to do with the stuff and really didn't want to be the one to hand it all out like charity.  Using the stuff as prizes seeing to be the solution.  So a few community members and I finished the small recycling center on the corner of the football field by completely enclosing it with metal screen and finishing it with a nice door and lock.  This was partly because we didn't want anyone taking away the plastic bins, to keep dogs out, and to keep kids from taking materials out to reuse in the contest. 

I was really exited when my host mom Alicia began collecting bottles right away:

Then her pile grew:

And grew:

Not many kids brought in recyclables the first week of the contest, but once it was clear to them that the program was on, they bombarded me with bags filled with bottles.  This was the second week:

The third week, we had to organize the small recycling center.  I invited the kids to earn 10 points per family if they helped me crush all the bottles.  What a BAD bad idea.  Ten kids in a small space stomping on a couple thousand bottles.  I regreted my decision immediately, but a few actually worked and in a couple hours we had finished the work.  The next day I tied up the bags and weighed them out - 80 kilos of plastic and 6 kilos of metal plus a bit of cardboard.  That's roughly equivalent to $21.  80 kilos of plastic represent about 2,700 bottles of various sizes. 

Like I said earlier, I haven't had time or money to climb any big mountains.  I'm for sure aching for the exercise and the adventure though.  When a couple tourists came through and requested a guided hike, the guide invited me along to get to know the mountain above us where our town's water comes from.  I had a bad cold but I pushed through it anyway (mistake, as it then progressed to a nasty sinus infection).  The top is covered in forest and is inhabited by Andean bears.  We didn't see any of the shy creatures, but we saw plenty evidence of their existence.

There have been a number of festivals in the area, including one where all the communities in the area gather with colored torches corresponding to their community (mine was white) and walk down to the town of Apuela for a nighttime Catholic mass.  It was quite stunning but of course that was the time my camera battery decided to no longer hold a charge.

Roughly every Saturday, a few women, their kids and I get together to work on recycled art projects.  Most of them have worked on the folded chip bag wallets but they seem to prefer paper bead making.

One of the women is a brilliant crocheter whose crafts are sold in the Intag store in Otavalo.  After I taught the schoolchildren to make plastic string for knitting, this artisan learned from her daughter and began making all kinds of amazing things.  One of her products was a traditional hat crocheted from black and transparent plastic string.  She likes the material so much that she now wants to buy new plastic bags...whoops...not really the point of reducing and recycling!  What's really ironic, though, is she's a cabuya artist.  She makes things out of a fiber produced from a big agave-like plant called the penca.  The fiber is called cabuya.  Before traffic arrived in Pucara and with it plastic products, these cabuya artisans wove bags to sell.  When plastic bags arrived, they pretty much snuffed this trade out of existence and now the artisans make their crafts to sell as purses and such for tourists.  Now these artisans know how to make string out of plastic and are crocheting that in plastic bags.  Funny...like an inversion.

About it for now...to be continued!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Baking for the first time in a year and a half

Part of why I love my new host family is they encourage me to create stuff.  And I´m very lucky because they have an oven.  So I´ve been experimenting with some of the recipes in Buen Provecho (our Peace Corps pdf recipe book) and have been less than thrilled with some of the results.  But I have other sources so lately we´ve had plenty of fresh bread and cookies.  One major problems with baking here are a lack of measuring cups and spoons, and no oven thermometer.  It makes things...tricky. 

Honey wheat bread dough made with miel de panela instead of honey.

Honey wheat bread dough rising :)

Baked honey wheat

Pretzels - good out of the oven, stale a day later

Second attempt at chocolate chip cookies.  Sadface.

Third attempt at chocolate chip cookies - it looks good!!

Finally on the way to cookie success!

If they would just be done now, they´d be PERFECT.

But alas, they flattened.  But they´re still chewy and delicious!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


What do you do or how to you feel when someone you meet basically tells you that your job is impossible to realize, or impossible to even make a dent in?

One lovely warm day in the campo, I wandered up the neighboring grassy hill with my little host brother to play soccer.  It ended up that he went off to pick and chew on sugar cane, so I sat on a wood bench in front of a friend's newly constructed house, watching two cows mow down a lawn and wondered why we don't do that in Illinois if we care so much about low-lying grass.  Then one cow pooped and my host brother's soccer ball plopped directly into the fresh paddie.  Maybe that.

The cows' owner came back and sat down to talk.  His question:  How long are you here for and what exactly are you doing?  I explained and like many other times, he focused on trash.  He told me what all us volunteers already know - how people toss trash on the ground even when a trash can is a step away.  They do it when they're kids and they do it when they're adults.  It drives him crazy and he's all but given up trying to get people to put trash in its place.  And what was saddest was when he reminded me of that time not long ago that I helped him pick up trash in the center of town - he said that in all his six-something years of living here, that was the first time anyone helped him pick up trash. 

He went on and told me how some visiting teachers from outside the country had completely changed the way kids dealt with trash.  The road outside the school was clean, every room in the school was spotless, etc. (to make a note the school IS pretty clean now).  Apparently a month later, when the teachers left, the school fell back to being dirty.  Same thing happened with another volunteer 'like me.'  And there once was a recycling program in town but people just got bored, or disinterested, unmotivated, or something...and now there's a small recycling shack and no one recycles.  The governmental organizations that promised to take their trash out of the valley never followed through either. 

He shook his head and said my job is impossible, or maybe doable in a hundred years. 

I went home and took a nap, feeling unmotivated myself to go out and do much that day.

Then some bizarre things happened this week:

-Went to wash the dishes and found a skinned pig head (plus eyes) floating in the sink.
-Found cardboard in the toilet and had to fish it out myself.
-Lightly scratched my nose and suddenly it was gushing blood.  People found this hilarious.
-Cracked open an egg and found blood.  Host mom says that's because it's the hen's first egg.  This is one of many reasons I prefer veganism...
-Made chocolate chip cookies that melted into one tasty cookie blob.  Still learning how to bake without measuring cups or spoons in an oven without a thermometer.
-There is something like a garbage shortage because half the town is making recycled art.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Inti Raymi in Ibarra

This weekend I was invited by a school teacher in Pucara to join her and her family at their house in Ibarra to see the city's version of Inti Raymi.  I jumped at the opportunity, but the day  I was to leave for Otavalo, I woke up with gripe (a cold).  No matter - I couldn't let that stop me.  Inti Raymi is the indigenous peoples' celebration of the summer solstice and seems to be celebrated much more intensely up in the northern parts of Ecuador than in Chimborazo.  Some communities (like in Cotacachi) have a reputation for fights breaking out.  In fact, people look forward to these fights to beat the shit out of each other.  They bring whips and backpacks full of stones and the police can't really do anything to stop them.  However, I was told over and over again the festivals in Otavalo and Ibarra are much tamer.

When I arrived Friday afternoon, I met the family and went for a drive to a lake called Yahuarcocha, which means 'lake of blood.'  A legend says that in the 15th century, invading Incas battled with the indigenous people of this area.  The Incas won, and set to work killing all males over 12 years of age - about 30,000 people.  They apparently did the killing atop this rock you can see when you drive all the way around the lake.  The Incas then threw the bodies into the lake which, little by little, turned the lake red.

The innocent-looking rock upon which apparently thousands of people lost their lives.

The next day, my gracious host had to race to Quito and back so almost needless to say, she didn't make it back to Ibarra until around 8 p.m.  So I just hung around her house making use of the constant internet access.  Around 7:30 p.m. I joined the rest of her family at the grandmother's house where they dressed me in a skirt which only a small group of local indigenous people wear.  The skirt was a lime green color and the top shirt was way way too big, so I felt a bit funny and wished I knew to bring my other clothes from Chimborazo.

We took a taxi somewhere - I have no idea where - and waited outside in a crowd for a while.  Again, no idea why.  Then a blue city bus came and whisked us a group of us costumed dancers away somewhere else that I don't know.  But this is where it all started.  The folk band struck up (they were very ridiculously good) and led us into the courtyard of a random house with some San Juan tunes.  Several circles around them were formed and we began dancing more or less in line.  Every so often a cup of trago (alcohol) or cup of less-than-appetizing chicha (fermented drink) would appear in your hand to down.

I love this picture.  None of my pics turned out particularly clear but this one was actually colorful and alive.

Someone blew a horn, and then we were all pouring back out to the street.  We did this throughout the night - dance and march around in the street, then end up in someone's courtyard dancing in circles in a tiny space.  
It was exhausting.  We got back around 2 a.m. after dancing constantly for five hours.  And now my cold is way worse, I have a headache, and any minute now I'm heading back to site.

Dancing in a parade with 'chivos' (the men in fur chaps with colorful, creepy headdress) leading the way.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The makers of panela: How to transform sugar cane into sugar

Yesterday another group from Siempre Verde passed through Pucara visiting a 'molienda,' or panela-making facility, and the community tree nursery.  When they left, the panela makers insisted I stay with them until the end - and it was just noon.  They began work at 3 a.m., helping themselves to doses of the Mexicano, a drink of trago (alcohol) with cane juice.  They figured they would be done by around 6 p.m.  The process is so incredible, so magical (am I being too cheesy?), that I did indeed stay to see all their 'paradas' through.  And I decided to show it all here and take you from live sugar cane stalks to juice to pure delicious sugar.

So the magic starts here:

Cutting the sugar cane for two whole days prior to the molienda
Next they pass each cleaned stalk through a gas-powered press, and the juice is caught and moves down a tube to a holding tank.

This is the cane juice extracted from the stalk and passed through a few filters where it begins warming in the tank below.

There are five tanks in this molienda.  The first tank (closest) holds one 'parada' (or batch) of sugar, the next two tanks hold the next parada, and the last two tanks hold the last parada, or the one most ready to be poured and set.

While the cane juice is cooking, it requires constant attention.  Sometimes the 'melero' (the person working the sugar) needs to use giant ladles made from dried gourds to pass the liquid from one of the two parada tanks to the other, then back again.

Soon foam forms on the surface of the paradas and the meleros here insist on skimming it off because it improves the taste of the sugar.  They also call it 'otavalillu' and say it's a delicacy, so when they skim off a wooden bowlful, they try to drink it instead of toss it out.

Except it is very, very sweet.  It has a unique flavor from cane juice and from panela, and it's only one of many different products they can create - not just sugar.

This guy is called the 'hornero,' or the guy who stokes the fire below the tanks.  One of the many beauties of this operation is that the squeezed and dried cane stalks are used to fuel the oven.

One of the meleros offers otavalillu to the Siempre Verde students.  The meleros are VERY proud of their work and they should be.  They love sharing every bit about the process with the community and visitors.

Next, a scoop of boiling-hot caramel-like sugar is poured into a wooden basin (called the caballo, or horse) and an artisan begins working a bit of it with a wood spatula.  At first he pushes the spatula around rapidly, then begins twirling the sugar until it turns from dark brown to light brown incorporating air bubbles.

Then in one fraction of a second, the sugar is twisted into a pillar right when it sets.  Sugar left on the spatula is pulled off, rolled to a ball, and stuck on top.

It's called 'santo,' or saint, because it ends up looking like a figurine.  And it is delicious, by far a favorite of everyone of any sugar product because of its light, airy texture.  It just melts in your mouth.

Now the parada in the last tank is released into a wood tank to cool and be worked over for maybe 10 or so minutes with a giant wooden paddle.  Kids love to dip spatulas in this and stick the boiling goo in water to cool, thus making caramel.

These are the sugar molds.  Other operations focus on making grain sugar, which is a slightly different process.  The molds must be slightly damp so the sugar doesn't stick to them (so this guy is wiping them down with a cloth) but they can't be wet or the sugar won't set properly.

The melero then scoops up a gourdful of panela and pours it expertly into the molds as the Siempre Verde kids look on.

It gets tougher as the sugar cools.

When the sugar sets (about 15 minutes, but longer to be on the safe side), they're popped out and joined together into panela hamburgers.  Each hamburger is worth $4.  In each parada, they produce maybe 15 hamburgers.  And in one day, they made a whopping six paradas.  I'll leave the math to you.

What kids wouldn't love to visit a sugar-making factory?