Tuesday, May 31, 2011
I write today from my new room at my old alma mater where I am once again a student, fresh from orientation as a law student. I am so excited to begin my legal training, and I hope the horizon-expanding experience that was Peace Corps will keep me grounded and compassionate in my career as an attorney.
Thank-you to all of you who read my blog, and in so doing, furthered the Peace Corps mission to bring the experience back to the States. I hope my stories pleased you, and I hope you know your comments were greatly appreciated.
Chao, y nos vemos!
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Ecuador was for me my first trip below the equator and, although I was an exchange student in high school, also the first time I was going to visit a country where I didn’t speak the language and wasn’t going to be there long enough to have any expectation of learning it.
The south of the equator aspect of the trip was fine; we did check, indeed, water goes down the drain in the opposite direction. One of my daughters actually filmed it. The warmer weather was also a pleasant respite from the freezing Michigan temperatures we left behind. Despite relatively thorough sun screen usage, I did get a sunburn one day when we simply walked along the river for a half an hour at most. The sun is definitely intense near the equator.
The language was kind of funny. Several of us had experiences where someone greeted us or did something for us, and instead of responding with the Spanish greeting that we did actually know or gracias, the Spanish for “thank you”, we either stood there with a deer in the headlights look, or started to respond with words from other foreign languages we know better than Spanish. I feel like our brains, at least as far as languages go, have a foreign language file, and if there isn’t an easily accessible word in the Spanish file, it just looks for the word in another foreign language file. It was embarrassing responding with “merci” (French thank you) or “hai” (Japanese yes) when with a little thought the Spanish was within my grasp.
A food that we all discovered we loved wasn’t one of the indigenous foods. My daughter lives in an area of Ecuador that grows peanuts. One food that she missed, but hated paying a lot for at the Super Maxi grocery store, was peanut butter. So, she developed her own recipe for peanut butter from the locally produced peanut paste. It’s fabulous! Jif has nothing on this stuff, and it came in very handy several times along the way.
Things I learned in Ecuador:
· Cows can graze on steep mountain slopes; we called them “mountain cows”
· People who grow bananas put a plastic bag over the clump of bananas as they are growing
· Two songs being sung at the same time on the same bus is truly annoying
· There are bijillions of types of humming birds
· It’s impossible to avoid the Ecuadorian equivalent of Montezuma’s revenge
· The Andes are gorgeous!
Cell Phones in use everywhere
How stark the Andes appear approaching from the coastal plain with very steep slopes
How developed the big cities are including Guayaquile, Quenca and LojaThe efficient public bus system on main roads that ran on-time (better than our jetplane rides)
Bus drivers passing on narrow mountain roads at dark in fog (Eeeks!)
"Mountain" cows (my name for them) that manage to graze even near mountain peaks
A farmer plowing his field with a single-point plot attached to two cows
Banana plantations appear to pre-wrap the growing banana cluster in a plastic bag
"Mature" movies playing for the many families on the bus to Loja
Palm trees dotting the crestline of most of the mountains we saw
Little boroughs with high concentrations of foreigners like Vilcabamba
Outdoor festivals and numerous fireworks in celebration of New Year's eve
Lack of insect swarms on the edge of the jungle
How skilled Alli has become at hailing taxis and "hitch-hike" rides in pick-ups
How many strangers recognized MSU whenever I wore my MSU Track T-shirt
Beautiful scenery supplied by the Andes mountains and valleys
Friendly welcome at Alli's site by her host Aunt and Uncle at their house in Catacocha
Miles and miles of banana plantations on the coastal plain, also papaya and pineapple
Talkative lady with granddaughter on her lap on bus to Quenca who didn't care that I speak almost no Spanish, but said a friendly "Hola" to (fortunately Alli rescued me for a while)
Multitude of birds visiting feeders on the edge of the jungle
Very few English-speaking people anywhere
Iffy tap-water most places
Transportation in Ecuador for us consisted mostly of bus riding - hours upon hours of it. The music played in the background reminded me of this computer game, Tropico, that I used to play a lot, developing islands as "El Presidante" in the tropics. Whoever designed that game must have spent some time on the busses in Ecuador.
Another mode of transportation was hitch-hiking, which we got to experience for the first time in the back of a pick-up truck, hiding under our raincoats while it was pouring. Even in bad weather, I still found the experience thrilling, especially going around turns on the edges of mountains in thick fog.
We met Alli's host aunt, uncle, and cousin and shared a delicious Ecuadorian dinner with them. Ecuadorians by the way, are into their carbs. Rice and fries seem to be their traditional side dishes, and their fries are delicious, and I'm willing to say, gasp, better than McDonald's!
I had been looking forward to seeing the jungle, and our eco-friendly cabana surrounded by it, was perfect. We had banana trees, hammocks, horses, and plenty of rainforesty looking vegetation, birds and bugs to meet my expectations, and I have the bug bites to prove it! Our hike through the jungle where I got to slide down a hill to discover a waterfall left me a happy camper.
What I think was my favorite part of the trip we stumbled upon in Guayaquil while wasting time before our flight home on New Year's Eve. Guayaquil was having an all day celebration in the street next to the gorgeous boardwalk on the bay. There were live performances, from belly dancers, a meriotche band, clowns, and dance groups, a shake your butt competition, and even a place to take your picture inside a mock-up of the device used to rescue the trapped minors in Chile.
My favorite Ecuadorian tradition was the Año viejos which were human-sized and bigger stuffed dolls that they light on fire on New Year's Eve. We found out from numerous loud bangs that set off car alarms, that they were filled with fireworks. The tradition is to stuff things from the ending year into the doll and burn it. The outside however is just decorated for fun, so it was hilarious seeing some Woody and Buzz Lightyears, Shrecks, and Ecuadorian Presidents strapped to cars all around Ecuador.
This trip was definitely a stark contrast from my last trip which was full of five star hotels in China, but it was an experience, I learned some Spanish, it was beautiful, and I happily did not encounter any tarantulas at Alli's site!
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Beginning December15th, Ecuadorian families gather nightly for nine days to celebrate la Novena (the ninth night) with oraciones (readings/prayers), songs and food. I joined my extended host family of the first night of the Novena. After reading, prayers, and songs, we ate cake with a slice of cheese in place of frosting - a delicacy I´m rapidly warming to - then admired my host aunt´s Christmas decorations. In the courtyard, a mechanical snowman sweeps the walk while a creche, complete with multi-colored twinkle lights, adorns the living room. The creche is joined by an artificial Christmas tree, and even a shake-your-hips Santa Claus. Such US-import Christmas decorations are everywhere, right down to the icicle lights at my friend Peggy´s site... who lives in the jungle and will be enjoying a 90 degree with high humidity Christmas.
A few days after my first Novena, I joined fellow Lojana, Liz, to travel out to Santi and Kayla´s exceptionally isolated site. Santi and Kayla are a married couple from my omnibus, and PC stuck them at the end of a dirt road nearly six hours from Loja, but only one mountain pass from Peru. Our journey came with a purpose - gingerbread houses! We constructed a small gingerbread town, including a post office, church, house, pond, and train. Some very moist frosting and over-loaded roofs led to structural difficulties. As a civil engineer, I´m a bit embarrassed by this, but in my defense, I did not have access to a building code for recommended coconut snow or frosting loads. Kaylas´s English students thought the gingerbread village a smashing success, however, as its imperfections meant they were welcomed to eat it this morning, which, according to Kayla, they did with relish.
Tonight I´m off to Guayaquil, Ecuador´s biggest city, to pick-up my parents and siblings. I so look forward to sharing Ecuador iwth them and hope that they´ll lend their pens to my next post, sharing their impressions with all of you.
Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año Nuevo!
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
That said, I got a major motivation this afternoon from an unlikely source. An SUV picked me up on my way into town for English club and the driver and passengers turned out to be ingeñeros (engineers, though the term encompasses a much wider swath of professions than its English equivalent) driving from Piura, Peru, to Loja, Ecuador. They were a lively crew and blasted a collection of mostly English songs throughout the trip. The familiar "We´ll be singing, while we´re winning," opening line to Chumbawamba´s song came through the speakers and my heart lifted. Bobbing my head to the music, a welcome wave of optimism and determination swept over me, as I decided that, damn it PC, you´re never gonna get me down!
Beyond the mental challenges of PC, the States threw a serious curve ball my way a few weeks ago in the form of bad health news on my grandma. I don´t yet know what course of action will prove best there, but while I´m here, I´m determined to make the most of the experience and try to do some good in my little corner of Ecuador. And if you´re familiar with the rest of "I Get Knocked Down," don´t worry, my plan of attack involves neither whiskey drinks, vodka drinks, lager drinks, nor cider drinks!
The plan does involve a little rest and relaxation that will be happening Stateside over the Thanksgiving holiday. If you´ll be around the A2 T-Town area, hope to see you there!
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Like the Michigander idiot that I am, my mind first concluded that a fake tarantula was in my closet. Next I wondered who could have left a fake tarantula in my closet, and where on Earth they had found such a realistic looking one. Finally, and startlingly, it dawned on me that I live in the tropics and, by golly, they have real tarantulas here! The monster in the closet (if not yet under the bed) was real! Mierda! Puta madre!
I stood doing nothing for a few moments, carefully watching the beast to assure myself that it wasn´t about to scurry off. I fumbled about for my camera and got in as close as I dared to capture this very anti-Hallmark Moment. Picture secured (see right), I got out the flashlight for a better view. The harsh LED crank light didn´t make the critter look any friendlier, and while I remembered reading a blog about a tarantula catch and release undertaken by a PC couple in similar straits, I knew I needed backup.
Luckily, Silvia, the farm manager´s wife was outside reading a magazine. I approached her painfully conscious that a proper ecuatoriana would deal with the stupid thing on her own, but I had to admit to myself that I am not, nor do I anticipate approaching, proper ecuatoriana status.
Silvia came back with me to my room and watched on as I shone the flashlight into the closet depths once again. A few seconds of observation assured her that the gringa did, at least, know what a tarantula was, and said I should "matalo, no más" (kill it, of course). In a flash, she grabbed my machete, made a quick chop, brushed the creature onto my shovel, and deposited the remains outside. All that was left to do was find some papel higenico (toilet paper) to clean-up the small mess left by the machete action.
I thanked Silvia, confident that her assistance would be amply repaid in amusement. I also, and quite foolishly, inquired further about the general prevalence of tarantulas in the area, particularly preoccupied with worries of this fellow's friends or descendents sharing his home. Silvia recommended shaking out my clothes, then recounted a story about a child who was bit in the neck by a tarantula and died. If you think it odd that Silvia would relate this story at such a time, you need to meet more Ecuadorians. Of course, who knows if my species was even the same species (Silvia grew-up in Peru) and I am at least twice as big as Ecuadorian adults, but still, my skin still occasionally crawls at the memory of my furry visitor.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
As I arrived back in my barrio, legs aching and feeling the effects of the sun, my neighbor called me over and invited me to help out in some sort of project involving a pile of sugar cane and a machine. The engineer instinct took over and I hurried around the fence. It turned out my neighbors (many were filtering through to assist) were making sugar cane honey. The first phase, harvesting the sugar cane, happened elsewhere, as the caña is thin on the ground in my dry area. However, in the well irrigated places or valleys hugging rivers near me, the stuff grows well and I´m used to seeing it. Up close, it looks a bit like bamboo (see the pile to the right).
Friday, October 8, 2010
I'm saving more details on the quincenera and work developments for another post, and will devote this one to the attempted coup. Last Thursday, September 30, Peace Corps sent out a message telling all volunteers to go on standfast, the first phase of our evacuation plan. Standfast entails pinpointing all volunteers' locations, then telling them to stay put until either consolidation in provincial capitals and possible evacuation, or an all-clear returning us to normal life. The standfast was enacted in anticipation of unrest likely to arise because of a planned national police strike.
I awoke Friday morning to the usual quiet laziness of my rural site, but shortly thereafter received a text from my mom asking "Did u hear about coup attempt? Is everything ok by u? Has pc said anything?" The text was the first I'd heard of the coup, and I had run out of saldo (phone minutes) the day before, so I couldn't call anyone to find out quickly. I was scheduled to help prepare the soil at one of my schools for a new garden, but decided to head into the town where I lived with my host family to buy saldo and hear the news (this sort of travel is allowed on Standfast - I have to go into town to buy food). The camioneta (pick-up truck) driver and high schooler with whom I shared a ride were discussing the coup and I learned that the national police force kidnapped Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, in a quasi-coup attempt on Thursday night (I'm unsure if the goal was to take over the government or just force Correa to repeal a new law they don't like). The kidnapping was short-lived and by my Friday morning camioneta ride, the military had already rescued him from the police kidnappers and the South American and international communities had expressed their support for the elected president.
Because of the coup, school across the country was cancelled, so my day was free and I spent time on the internet, then went over to my host parents' house and watched the news with my host mom. I really enjoyed talking with her about the coup. She was feeling shaken by the coup attempt, and not terribly proud of Ecuador, but I actually helped her feel better, pointing out that the coup's failure was probably a good sign for Ecuador - that the country was stable enough to withstand such an assault. She reflected on that and agreed, remembering the occasions in the not that distant past when Ecuadorian governments did not fare so well when faced with affronts to their power.
The country was placed under an "exceptional state" following the coup, meaning that the military took control of security throughout the country and retains it until tomorrow, Saturday, when the police force is scheduled to return to its normal duties. I'm not sure what the difference between an "exceptional state" and marshal law is - they seam awfully similar to me - but the official name for the state of affairs here has been the former. In Quito and Guayaquil the military was roving the streets picking up groups bigger than 2, at times, and there were a few gun fights and a big uptick in robberies. Out by me, life was unchanged except for a few more people from the ejercito (army) walking around, though there wasn't any obvious unrest for them to contain. Friends in Ciudad de Loja said all they heard of happening was a bank and mini-mart robbery. My province is super tranquilo, as they say in Spanish, and when it comes to political instability, I'm happy with things this way.
So, that was my experience with a coup attempt. Interesting in a far-away sense, but pretty unevently in my physical relm. Let's hope things remain calm!