Sunday, November 20, 2011

Things about me that shock and/or confuse Ecuadorians:

1.      1. My height.
2.      2. My shoe size.  I have some size 17 shoes that say they are 49, and others that say 51.5. I have settled on 50 as the size I tell people.
3.      3. I can cook.
4.      4. I’m single.
5.      5. I’m OK living in my own apartment.
6.      6. That my family allowed me to come here.
7.      7. That I am neither a student nor a missionary.
8.      8. I wash my own clothing.
9.      9. How much money I make.  Whenever someone asks me that I ask them how much they thing I make. Most often they say $1,000 per month. They rarely believe me at first when I tell them that it’s $360, and that I pay $80 of that in rent. The Ecuadorian minimum wage is $240, and most people making that live in a house that their family has owned for some time. Then again, most also have kids.
10  10. I don’t own a TV
11 11. I eat meat. Though that's more because the two volunteers that were here before me were vegetarians.


Somewhere in Central Pennsylvania on my second drive from Massachusetts to New Orleans, I decided that audiobooks are for me. Then, it was because I didn’t have to fight off the usual after lunch drowsiness. When I joined a gym, I substituted The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo for LA Fitness’ radio station, and found that I was much more likely to workout.  Here in Ecuador, I’ve listened to twice as many books as I’ve read. It’s gotten to the point that last week I restricted myself to only listening to books while I do chores or other manual labor. This also, probably not coincidently, coincided with the day I ran out of underwear, and resolved that I would do a little bit of laundry every day, rather than let accumulate, but not be able to wash for two more days because the clothesline is full of my neighbor’s baby’s diapers. It was also one of many days that I was exhausted because I had stayed up in bed the night before as I decided I needed to listen to “just one more chapter” 3 or 4 times.

A few thoughts on some of the books I’ve listened to or read since coming to Ecuador:

The Bonfire of The Vanities, by Tom Wolfe, is the single most conflicting book I’ve ever read (or listened to as the case may be). It was bizarre to come to the realization that the character I found least contemptible (none are likeable) was the Wall Street trader who thought of himself as a “master of the universe.” It was even more bizarre to come to this realization while reading daily updates about Occupy Wall Street.

I’ve never been more infuriated by a book than I was by Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. It’s the story of a Muslim contractor in New Orleans who went around saving people after the flooding until he was imprisoned by the authorities. I know better, yet I still found myself shocked every time the authorities (I forget which agency was holding him) oppressively and inhumanely violated the man’s rights. 

I’m not a big fan of the Rolling Stones, but I listened to Keith Richard’s autobiography, Life. He might be able to challenge the Dos XX guy for most interesting man in the world. Do true rock stars still exist? Also, it’s kinda cool to hear someone read their own work, particularly an autobiography, and particularly when they have an accent.

I use to download books. Basically I get a book for $15 per month, plus take advantage of some pretty decent sales every now and then. The website commissioned Samuel L. Jackson to read Go the Fuck to Sleep, a spoof children’s book written by Adam Mansbach, and let members download it for free. It was an enjoyable 6 minutes.

Who would love spending 28 hours listening to the oral history of ESPN, as told by the people who worked there? That would be me. Those Guys Have All the Fun got me through being bedridden for two days a few months ago with a 103 degree fever.

Harry Potter, which I first read in college, opened my mind to reading young adult literature.  For the first time in my life I was ahead of a trend when I read The Hunger Games trilogy before it blew up – I’m assuming that is has blown up based on the movie being covered by the Yahoo! front page. The Book Thief, by Martin Zusak, is without question the best book I have read/listened to from this genre, and is most certainly one of the best in any Genre. I don’t have any specific comment, other than you should do yourself a favor and read it.

I finished reading (yes, actually reading!) Eva Luna by Isabel Allende a couple of days ago. I’m trying to sprinkle in some Latin American literature, being that I, you know, live in Latin America. I’ve previously read Love in the time of Cholera (loved it) and 100 Years of Solitude (meh) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’m rereading Love in the Time of Cholera in Spanish right now, but it’s a painstakingly slow process. If I read something by Mario Vargas Llosa I’ll have covered the three major Latin American authors that I can name. In Quito and Cuenca, and probably Guayaquil, books in English are available. Recommendations anyone?

A few months ago a former Peace Corps volunteer recommended comics as a great way to learn a language. You have a visual element that helps you understand what you’re reading, and the language is more colloquial and every day than what you get in classes. My neighbor has a collection of Condórito a short weekly comic that comes in one of the papers. They are pretty useful for language learning, but not particularly interesting comics. If one were to be thinking about useful presents for an upcoming holiday, the present paragraph could be used to inform his or her decision…


Mosquitoes are a constant presence here in Arenillas, but get worse around this time of year. I’m told that it’s because the hot season is starting, but there have been crazy amounts of mosquitoes the past week even though the temperature hasn’t changed. There are two mosquito borne diseases to worry about here, Malaria and Dengue Fever.  The first few moths I was here I was trying to catch Dengue and get it over with. At the time I was living with my host family and had an air conditioner and had my own bathroom 4 feet from my bed. All of the volunteers in my immediate vicinity have had it, so I thought of it as inevitable, and you develop a resistance to the strain that you catch. You are still susceptible to other strains of the virus, and the consequences get more severe when as you collect more stamps on your “different strains of dengue” punch card, but my understanding is that you have to travel somewhere else to be exposed to it. I’m taking pills to prevent Malaria, so I’m not too concerned about that.

Being that I’ve made it this far, I no longer have any desire to catch dengue. Until the recent influx, I had developed an adequate mosquito management system in which I would leave the door to my bathroom open during the day. The mosquitoes would fly in, attracted to the darkness and slightly warmer temperature, and I would shut them in when I got home.  Every now and then I would put on some music and slaughter them (think Willam Defoe investigating a crime scene in Boondock Saints), leaving their bodies sticking to the walls where the ants would clean them off.  Symbiosis!  It’s quite easy to slaughter mosquitoes in a 5’x5’ space.  
Left Hand, Post Massacre
Right Hand, Post Massacre

Unfortunately, this is no longer an adequate solution. I have undertaken a project to mosquitoproof my apartment. The major problem area is the four inch gap between my wall and the roof. To close this gap I cut a mosquito net into strips, and attached them to a chord that goes over the beams, clipping the bottom of the net to the beam that runs along the top of the wall. Being woken up by high pitched buzzing three of the past four nights has also motivated me to finally put a mosquito net up over my bed.

The problem now is that when I got home at dusk yesterday, there were about 30 mosquitoes trapped in trying to leave my apartment.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

No Hay Agua

Escuela Juan Montalvo, one of the schools where I have a garden project, is located on the top of one of the hills here in town. We did a lot of work to prepare the garden for planting, which we did two weeks ago.  First we had to clean the location. Then we had to level it. I asked the dept of public works to give us a half a dumptruck of fill that they were hauling away from another worksite. Then we had to get actually plantable soil. The teacher arranged that one, and another dumptruck deposited a mound of earth.  The problem was that the school is surrounded by a wall, and the gate was too small for the trucks to ender. Thus, between the two deliveries, we spent about 10 hours of classtime filling buckets, boxes, a wheelbarrow, and probably a couple of other types of containers to carry the dirt inside. File that under things you could not pull off in an American School system.

As I said, we planted two weeks ago. Unfortunately, nothing is growing because it turns out the school hasn't had water consistently for the better part of two weeks.  Water, being a slave to gravity, doesn't make it up to the tops of the hills when the resevoir is low and there is little pressure. Thus, while in most of the city there have been one or two days of outages, none of which were long enough for the tank at my apartment building to run dry, the people who live up towards the tops of the hills have been having to fill tanks in the moments when they have had water and make it last for an indetermined period of time. Yet another reason I'm glad to live where I do.

As for the garden, we were pushing the limits of being able to harvest during the schoolyear two weeks ago. At this point, that's pretty much out of the question. It could be posible to meet at the school in the summer, but I don't really want to do that, and any plans are entirely dependant on having reliable agua in the first place, which probably won't happen until the rainy season comes in January. One more setback and I think I'm telling the teachers that there isn't any point in continuing this year, and that we're better off waiting until next year, when we'll be able to begin by planting. It's too bad for the kids who have done the work, but it's also the only logical decision.

Monday, October 31, 2011

This and That

I'm going with bullets for this one

* It seems as if the rural trash recollection project that has been in the works for the past few months actually might happen.  Basically, due to a lack of vehicles there hasn't been trash pickup in the rural areas of the canton for at least a few years. There is still a lack of vehicles, but we are going to begin recollection in 5 towns every other week along one of the routes in the campo. This is going to be accompanied by the instalation of 55 gallon tanks along the route where people can deposit the trash from their house, because no one wants to have to store their trash for two weeks at a time. We are also going to be offering workshops on composting. The idea is that people will use their organic waste to make compost or feed their pigs, and that will eliminate most of what would smell after two weeks of sitting in a bag.
We are trying to hold a meeting and a community cleanup in each of the communities. The problem is that there have been two so far where the ride that we've arranged has fallen through at the last minute for whatever reason. Being that there is no phone service out there, when this happens, there's no way to tell people. 

*There was a meeting scheduled on friday night in one of the communities in the campo. Originally I was supposed to be going with a coworker, but he had to go to Guayaquil for some reason that I don't quite understand, leaving me to facilitate the meeting, and then stay the night with someone in the community. Fine, no big deal, I've done it before.  What was not, however, communicated to me was that this town that I've never been to was not actually on the main road, but a small ways away. I went on the bus and it dropped me of at the beginning of the road to the community. As the bus pulls away I realize that it's pitch dark and no one told me that I would need a flashlight, and that noone has come to meet me. I begin up the road to the town, which is kinda sorta barely visible, and wind around for 100 meters or so. I come upon a donkey tied up on one of the bends, and then there is a dip, at the bottom of which is a stream. For some reason this stream hasn't dried up like the rest of the streams in the area either. I searched by cellphone light for about 10 minutes, but couldn't find a way across, and gave up. There was, however, no bus back that night.  I had to walk a couple of miles to the next town over where I have previously stayed, and was going to be helping with a community cleanup the next morning. They were quite confused and amused when I showed up.
* I bought a guitar the other week. I did it as much out of needing something to fill time as a desire to play. As such, it was the first highly questionable purchase that I made here. That's pretty good, right?

* We harvested the first cucumbers from the garden at Escuela Albert Einstein. There are a couple of tomato plants that have a dozen or so green tomatoes that are a couple of weeks away as well.  I want to get more cucumbers planted, and some swiss chard as well.

* Ecuadorians are really excited when they find out that I can make pizza. One of such people is my 84 year old neighbor who is a baker. I taught him how to make it, and he's made it twice in the past week, to sell in the bakery. He modified the recipe, though, and decided to put egg in the crust. The second time he made it he borrowed a microwave to reheat the slices, which, he previously didn't know how to use. 

* I find myself being excited by certain American items that I never have had any real attachment to before. Especially Oreos and Prego pasta sauce.

*I miss good ice cream.

*Arenillas hosted a basketball "cuadrangular" (4 team tournament) with teams from the three closest cities last night. We placed third, meaning we lost our first game and won the second, which is probably a fair result based on the tournament. It was great to play real basketball.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A few of weeks ago was the Reconnect conference for those of us in my training group. The 35 of us who remain of the original 42 returned with a counterpart to Tumbaco, sight of our training. We volunteers stayed with our host families from training, which was absolutely wonderful.  Mine always makes a point to remind me that I have a second home there, a message that has definitely set in. Reconnect happened to coincide with my birthday, for which we ordered Pizza Hut and ate cake, though disappointingly, no one attempted to shove my face in the cake as is the custom here for the cumpleañero.

Basically all of the volunteers expressed some degree of frustration with how things are going in out respective sites. According to everyone in the Peace Corps, staff and volunteers alike, this is par for the course after 4-5 months. Some people were annoyed with their living situation; others with their work situation or the language barrier many had hoped to have overcome by that point. Ecuadorian culture and its complete lack of regard for punctuality and machismo were other common targets of people’s ire, as was rice (though not by me of course).

Aside from the airing of the grievances*, there were also workshops in project planning and cross-cultural communication (how to work with people who live in small towns in the campo) that we attended with our counterparts. I went with Daniel from the Office of Environmental Management in the municipio. I came away impressed with him and his knowledge and motivation. That said, I also have been growing increasingly skeptical about working with the municipio because of the budget situation and how it has derailed essentially all of our office’s plans, and the general lack of direction that they have provided me on what they would like me to work on.

I was in no hurry to return to Arenillas so I went to Gringolandia Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador with a few friends. It’s on the way home from Tumbaco in the sense that half of the country in only an hour or two out of the way because I have to travel 12+ hours to get to any official Peace Corps meeting. We stayed in a sweet hostel, went to an English language bookstore, and watched football on the satellite hookup at an American owned bar that caters to the expat community. It was a nice break, but it felt weird to be there.

I returned to some bad news, my friend and neighbor Victor had been hit by a car and was in a coma.  He passed away last Thursday.  Victor was one of handful of people who I feel like went out of his way to make me feel welcome here, inviting me to things, introducing me to people, and letting me use his workshop to build my furniture. I am not exaggerating in saying that at least 15 of his family members are also my friends and neighbors as well. He’ll be missed.  The funeral process here is a three-day event. There was essentially a three day wake that began when the body was brought back from the mortuary, and lasted until it was carried in a procession to the church for the mass. There were chairs set up outside in the street, and when the body first arrived at 11:15 at night the whole community was present. The custom here is that there has to be someone present to accompany the body at all times over the three days. After the mass, the body was carried across town in another procession. First the flowers, then the people carrying the casket, then the rest of the walkers, followed by the cars and motorcycles. It reminded me of a second line, but lacking the music. A few more dedications were read at the cemetery, and the casket was placed in an above ground crypt. From there everyone returned to the house for one final night of mourning and reminiscing.

On a happier note, it’s the fiestas patronales of Arenillas this week. Every town in Ecuador (Latin America? The Catholic world?) has a patron saint, and a big celebration on that saint’s day. Festivities kicked off last weekend with the Pregón, a parade of the different schools and institutions in town. Everyone is in costume, mostly traditional indigenous wear, and prepares a dance or other performance. I was at Colegio Technico, the big high school, last Thursday talking with Renee, one of the other PC volunteers here in Arenillas. We were invited to learn the dance that the group would be performing the next day in the Pregón, and think nothing of it, accepted. Next thing we knew they were inviting us to be in the performance and handing us our costumes. I’ll post the video when I get a copy. Other events on the official festival calendar for this weekend include: a city wide dance in the park, a 4x4 rally, and what I believe is a foam party held at a discoteca, sure to bring glory to our patron saint.

The power has been out here as I’ve been writing this. I just went outside for a moment and found out why this is. The power company is cleaning off all of the moss and other plants growing on the lines. They’re doing this by throwing a weighted rope over the line, grabbing it by both ends, and sliding it along the length of the cable, thus scraping of the plants. Asi es la vida.