Tuesday, November 28, 2006

In the jungle the mighty jungle

So last weekend I took "vacation" from my office and took off for San Juan Bosco for Thanksgiving, a little town in Morona Santiago in el Oriente. I started the trip off inauspisciously by buying a ticket on the wrong bus to the wrong town, mainly because I failed to read the email of Dave, the volunteer who was organizing it. Of course I was not able to return the bad ticket and I now have an $8.50 ticket to Macas, which I think is about twelve hours away. I have to use by Saturday. Sad. I don´t think that is going to happen.

San Juan Bosco is 36 miles from Cuenca, but the bus ride is 6 hours, and I couldn´t fathom how this could really be true until we hit a gravel road about an hour after leaving and started to wind through green hills. It was really beautiful and really slow. On hour number four, we came over the ridge of a mountain and a beautiful valley opened up to us, with a tiny shimmer of white in the bottom of it. That is San Juan Bosco, they told us, another two hours from where we were. Once we got to the town, being the the valley was just as stunning, the first morning after we arrived I found myself in blistering sun, surrounded by towering green ridges, one piled up behind the other, covered by clouds. Everything is topped off by the Pan de Azucar, or Sugarloaf, which is this Close Encounters like mountain that stands over everything. The volunteers who lived there had engaged pretty much the entire town in welcoming us, the first night the jovenes cooked dinner for us at the colegio or the high school.

Thanksgiving Day Dave and his family had set up ovens and gas ranges by this picnic site at the fairgrounds along this lovely green river and cooked turkey and comote, a purple root vegetable with marshmellows and lots of vegetables and stuffing. I got suckered into being responsible for making pumpkin pie, only everyone´s most basic and traditional comfort food. No pressure there. It turned out well although I had a couple bad moments carrying around two bags of pumpkin that I packed in from Cuenca. They were starting to turn in the jungle heat, and I don´t think I will ever forget the smell of rotting pumpkin. It was the smell of my social demise during the weekend. I had visions of being remembered as the girl who tried and failed to make that terrible pumpkin pie. Once I finally got the meat into a pan of boiling water, I calmed down and we sat at the picnic table and made pie crusts. It turned out that there was enough for everyone and it tasted really good. Really people made a bg show of how delicious it was, although I don´t think the Ecuadorians really understood the appeal of pastel de calabaza.

Friday Dave´s family roasted a pig for us by another river and we saw them clean entrails out in the river and I saw the creation of my arch enemy, morsilla, as they filled the intestines with cabbage and onions. I didn´t stick around for that though, but took off with some Sarah, who lives in a little city near Cuenca and Zoe to her site in Bomboiza, which is a Shuar community near Gualaquiza. I mean we tried to take off but, as my Zoe said, no one really ever seems to leave San Juan Bosco and it was more complicated than we thought. We had plans to catch the 4:30 bus and got to town plenty in advance only to find that we bus had come early, which of course almost never happens. We sat on the corner of the road to Gualaquiza and made friends with the neighborhood boys. (Digression: I´m reveling in the local color a little here, so bear with me. The whole weekend, I had this sense, this is the real Peace Corps experience, and my life in my pretty, modern, well organized, Cuenca is just a mere shadow of it. The grass is always greener, right?) Eventually we did catch a bus to Gualaquiza, and another bus out to my Zoe´s village, and I when we got off at the road that you walk out to where they live, we were completely floored by how dark it was. As we were falling asleep Zoe said reassuringly that she thought all the tarantullas had been killed when she fumigated, but despite that, I slept soundly and woke up to the light shining through the cracks of the cabin walls.

The Shuar are an indigenous group that live in the Oriente, and I think we had some ambitious plans to visit the cultural center, but we ended up lying around with the Zoe and the other volunteer, Ulla in their lovely homes, making spaghetti and hot chocolate and recovering from the accion de dar gracias. In the evening it was time to get into Gualaquiza to catch a night bus back to home, and we scored a ride with the principal of a school who immediately divined we were Peace Corps volunteers and talked non-stop for the entire ride about how he learned english in Ossining, which was a great relief to not have to make awkward conversation. Ulla gave us a muscle relaxer to split during the night bus, and Sarah and I agreed that we both could have stood to be a little more relaxed. At one point during the night the driver asked everyone to get off so that the bus could get up the hill, but we arrived safely and slept til noon.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


So when we started in the Peace Corps they gave us little tips about shopping in the market, how to bargain, how to ask for the yappa or the extra. I went with my host mother in Cayambe to the market in Ibarra and watched the way she mildly refused to buy anything until it was approximately a third of the quoted price. This is this stuff that Peace Corps does really well, how to go and do all the things in your community that every else does, and not look like a tourist doing it. The advantage of living a ten minute walk from a huge market, is that you can buy things there, and its way cheaper than at the Supermaxi, so off I went yesterday with my little basket willed to me by another volunteer who was leaving. "Use it well" she said to me, "take it to the market."

So there I was in the middle of El Arenal, like any Ecuadorian housewife, with a list of things to get, prepared to bargain for the best price. The trick though is, nobody sells anyone two avocados in the market, so when I asked how much they were, I heard four for a dollar. Not wanting to be cheated I made this face like I was thinking it was "demaciado caro" and couldn´t she give me five? The seƱora was happy to comply. And I walked off to the next stall feeling very good about myself. You can probably see where this is going. There were mangoes, where a similar negotiation was successfully executed and I found myself with enough of them to feed several families for a week. The thing is though that I got a blender last week and so I have a monton of time on my hands, so every morning I make myself a smoothie. Theoretically most of the fruit I got can be put in a blender with yoghurt, so the plan is to eat it all, but when I got home and cleaned everything and put it away, it became clear I got an extraordinary amount of fruits and veggies for one person.

Here´s a an inventory of everything. I figured when I got home that I spent $5.60.

6 Mangoes
1 bag of blackberries
1 bunch (8) carrots
5 avocados
15 tomatoes
1 bag (20) mandarin oranges
1 bag (20) apples, small
1/2 a bunch of bananas

I´m eating.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


So, when I found out I was going to Ecuador, my mom ventured most delicately, wouldn´t it end up being hard for me living in a Catholic country? Wouldn´t it be kind of homophobic there? I sort of discounted the concern though, I figured that it would be fine, and really it has been. Because I work with a bunch of people who do sexual health and HIV prevention it hasn´t ever been difficult to find the sexual diversity here. So although everyone in Ecuador thinks of Cuenca as a conservative and rigid place, I managed to find and make friends in the gay community without any difficulty. Maybe its the extranjera or foreigner dynamic or that fact that Cuence is really very small, but its been easier to make gay and lesbian friends here than it was in New York.

All this is leading up to the fact that on Friday, I found myself in a training with a group of wealthy women who are going to be volunteers with new mothers from this hospital for low-income women. And we did the homophobia section of the training. And some of the stuff that the women said was pretty intense. Now, I always catch myself when I find myself marveling at how racist or homophobic people are here, because I know in all honesty that for everyone open-minded forward thinking person in the US, there is someone making the very same jokes about black people or gay people at home that they make here. The difference being that folks from the US, even if they are racist, have a self consciousness or shame about it that I have yet to encounter here. The most racist jokes that I have ever heard, I have heard here, and people never preface them with the evasive disclaimer, "well I´m not racist, but..."

So whatever might have heard from some of las seƱoras, I know I could probably just as well have heard in Greensboro, North Carolina where I grew up, but leaving that aside, I do have to say that it was striking how ignorant a portion of these women were. Most of them were only a few years older than me, aggressively skinny, with exhaustively straightened hair, and all wearing one incarnation or another of the same black stiletto dress boots and designer jeans. What was interesting was that they were dying to talk about gay people. They had stuff they wanted to get off their chest. The comments ran along the line of: It´s a disease. Anal sex is what caused AIDS. If its not genetic and its not an illness, then what is it? Gay men and lesbians are half men or half women.

This was the first workshop I had been to with this group, so fortunately I was in the role of the observer and I kept my mouth studiously shut through the whole thing. The woman who was facilitating the group was remarkable, and did a great job of responding to and debunking a whole host of myths that would have rendered me speechless in english, much less in spanish. After I awhile I came to the uncomfortable realization that I was deriving a perverse pleasure from the situation. I had the unsettling sense that listening to these women, who by all accounts might feel superior to me given that I am not married, not skinny, without kids, living by myself in a foreign country on a shoestring budget, I was enjoying the feeling of moral superiority over them a little too much. I caught myself eagerly craning my neck to hear the next comment of the most backwards of the bunch. I´m not proud of that, but that´s what happened sitting there in that room, walking through that parking lot and realizing that the fifteen monstrous SUV´s filling the parking lot belonged to these women. I was better than them. I´m a volunteer after all. I´m here to do something good.

And of course I have to admit that they are as well, giving up time with their families to learn how to be volunteers. They all sat in the room through the whole thing, they listened to the facilitator when she tried to challenge them. I can hardly fault them for being products of their culture. I still have the typical New York reaction when someone asks me for money, I freeze and mumble how I´m sorry and walk on by. And when I do give someone food or change, it´s more for me, to soothe my angst about how things are in the world, than for them. It´s all part and parcel of the same thing, more or less.

Friday, November 10, 2006

My Dad Brags

My Pop is rubbing shoulder with the big guns.

"Last night, David Brooks spoke at Guilford and predicted that the moderate era might last for a decade. I got to meet him and he said he hoped my book would be published in time to be part of political discussion in 2008. "

Let´s certainly hope so, as though as I said below, I don´t think that the Democratic success is evidence of the success of moderation, so much as it is a sign of the Democrats finally articulating a position that is markedly different from the right (and thus somewhat to the left) and that strategy appealing to American voters that are sick of stay-the-course-business-as-usual Rove and Rumsfeld shenanigans. Now if Robert Calhoon and David Brooks call the moderation then I like it. But when someone tried to challenge Lieberman on his stay-the-course-business-as-usual Rove and Rumsfeld shenanigans back earlier in the year with a position that is markedly different from the right (and thus somewhat to the left) up in Connecticut, Robert Calhoon didn´t like it so much.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Good news for people who love bad news

So, yeah. It´s an exciting day for most of us. The Democrats have the House and most likely the Senate, after a long time, there is the hope of some measure of accountability and balance of power in DC. I hope we wont just attribute this to luck or chance, but to races where candidates staked out a position distinct from the Republicans (excepting Connecticut, sigh. My Pop must be happy) and the people on the ground that made the phone calls, canvased the houses, and sold the hotdogs. I guess the Republicans helped a little too.

I walked around my office telling anyone who would listen that Rumseld had resigned and the Democrats have the Senate and the House. Now, I guess we have to see what happens now. Although Mark Schmitt counsels against holding them to unrealistic expectations here.


So props to Jill of jillypickle fame for a real old fashioned letter, complete with office gossip and big news. Shout outs for the next three pals who send substantial items in the mail, this includes you Mom.

Monday, November 06, 2006

I have never been a calm blue sea

OK so the first thing to say is that Fleetwood Mac´s Storms is the prettiest song ever written. It´s a sweet little song, but when you look up the lyrics, you realize its about living through devastating, bone breaking heart break.

Every night that goes between/I feel a little less
As you slowly go away from me/This is only another test
Every hour of fear I spend/My body tries to cry
Living through each empty night/A deadly call inside

Today I found myself helping out in a lamaz class in a hospital near the Feria Libre, a big market in the southwest corner of the city. I don´t know the first thing about childbirth so it was pretty impressive watching the girls (all younger than me by at least six years) learn how to stretch and breath. The street between the market and my neighborhood takes you through lots of houses, garages and home repair stores. It´s far from poor by Ecuadorian´standards, but it doesn´t have the seamlessness of the neighborhood to the east of me, which is lined with fancy restaurants where upper-middle class Ecuadorians eat. I couldn´t find the bus that goes from there to my house and I outwalked a huge, black thundercloud on my right, with the sun on my left. There was a double rainbow arching over the cathedral in the center of town, (yes I got pictures.) It seemed to fit with the tune in head, although these days I´m not heartbroken.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Quote of the month, regarding me

"You're so ex-pat and Hemingway and Earlham."

- My friend Erik, who just started blogging again after a hiatus in which he and his lovely girlfriend Ellen had a beautiful son.

Mi Cuenca Canta

It´s the independence of Cuenca and there are big parties everywhere the streets are filled with people going everywhere, and restaurants and bars are all having events. There are gringoes and Ecuadorians everywhere.

My halloween costume was a success, it was fun having thick long hair and wearing big silver hoop earrings. Several people didn´t even recognize me, which I judged to indicate success. There were too many Peace Corps volunteers sleeping in my living room for too many days, but other than that it was fun.

I bought a refrigerator today, as my apartment didn´t come with anything. It´s deceptive here, you have big fancy stores with electronics and appliances on sale, but its still different from home. In order to buy anything of value in Ecuador you have to use your cedula or passport number, and for some reason my passport wouldn´t work in their system so they found a way to sidestep it in the computer. But subsequently they forgot to ask my address and I walked out of the store without giving it to them. When I called them to correct the situation, I found myself in the middle of a six lane road squished between an indigenous family selling tomatoes and a yellow taxi cab yelling my address into the phone over the noise of a local musicians that were performing in front of the big market complex. That´s Ecuador. If it didn´t come tomorrow when its expected, then that will remind me of home though. Deliveries in New York never come when they are supposed to. There it makes me crazy but here I am much more zen about it.