Tuesday, January 19, 2010
When I think about what I accomplished during my PC service I can’t help but be a bit disappointed. I try to focus on the positive and forget the failures, of which there were many. I have found it almost impossible to make any of the work I've done in the community sustainable. When I leave no one is going to teach an extracurricular class for the children of the community. My neighbors will hopefully continue planting and harvesting in the community garden but for how long? Will more people join or start their own gardens? I would hope so but I can't say for certain. I know some people started composting and planting but I'll always feel like I didn't have the scope to reach enough people. Part of it has to do with the dynamics of the community but I feel like on a basic level I failed to engage enough people to form any kind of sustainable or productive group. The people who want to learn will show up and if that means teaching compost to two people, well, I’ll be there with a shovel ready to go. I’ll drop nutrition tips into regular conversations or denounce machismo comments any chance I get. Being a volunteer is about more than the numbers on your quarterly report. Failure is very real and very painful but at the same time I know that my community will remember me for all the positive things I did and not that time no one showed up for my charla. Just walking through my community makes me feel good about the time I spent there. In just a few minutes I’ll go from the school where I taught, danced and played indor, then pass by the church I helped paint and then the fields where I helped my neighbor harvest pineapple, further up is where I held my Friday afternoon class and painted the World Map, right next to that is the community garden where the lettuce that everyone told me wouldn’t grow here is big and ready to be harvested, along with some tomatoes and green peppers, past Magola’s house where I had so many good meals, down to the river where I bathed and washed my clothes when there was no water, over to where I planted some balsa trees, that in a few years will be thick and tall, I take this all in and I realize that if nothing else I participated. And that’s how you need to live your life; you need to participate if you want to get anything out of it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what kind of life I want to live exactly, what things really matter to me, what do I really need. The more I think about it the more I want a simple life, not focused on material possessions, but on experiences, relationships and hard work doing something you care about. It’s still hard though, at times, to shake off the mentality of more is more and I’ll admit that when I walk into the Supermaxi I want to immediately buy every American product I see, things I would never even buy in the states. It’s a combination of my ingrained consumer impulse and nostalgia for home. I was raised believing you have to live a certain way, own certain things and reach certain goals in order to be successful. But I’ve slowly come to realize that my definition of success is a lot different than what I was taught. I’ve lived without a lot of things that people in the states would claim “they can’t live without” (TV, internet access, hot water to name a few) and yet I’ve lived a very pleasant and comfortable life. Yes it can be a hassle to not have complete communication capabilities, to not understand my friends’ pop culture references or to pour a bucket of cold water on myself when it’s not hot out, but when I think about what I’ve missed, I mean really missed from the states, those things don’t seem to matter. What matters are all those milestones on the life spectrum that I wasn’t there for, weddings, births, funerals, moments that you should be present for the people that you care about and I couldn’t be. But what I really missed out on is the sometimes mundane, sometimes absurd comedy of life, the everyday, the stuff that binds us. By being here I gave all that up and it’s not something I can get back as easily as ordering from the Thai takeout menu. I wasn’t there to help move, to proofread a term paper, to visit in the hospital, or to celebrate birthdays, holidays, promotions, Saturday. I can’t help but feel guilty about this. And now I’m leaving again. When will you be back? I’ve been asked that practically since I got here. It’s almost as if being here doesn’t count unless I return. Maybe it’s because most of the people in this community know that they’re not going anywhere. If I do come back, they’ll most assuredly still be here. When will you be back? I haven’t even left yet.
I'm happy to be closing my Peace Corps service on a good note. At the very least, this time I get to say good-bye. In the coming days there will be despedidas and I'll make the rounds to all my friends and neighbors, assuring them once again with my best Terminator voice that I'll be back, I just don't know when. I'm excited to start a new adventure, without the watchful eye of the government, but also without it's safety net. Most of my wordly possessions have been given away or sold. All of my clothes have holes, are stained or smell like mold. I feel like a vagabond and will be living like one too. No set schedule, a rough outline in my mind of where and when, but not knowing is half the fun. Plus the minor detail of me having to learn to drive stick shift. And who knows what other useful skills I'll pick up along the way, surely by the end of this trip I'll be able to do an invisible bribe pass and talk my way out of tickets in Spanish. The possibilities are endless when you're up for anything. Coming and going are the hardest parts of Peace Corps, but if you're constantly moving then you're always coming and going and that will be our greatest challenge on this trip. That along with the constant strikes, breakdowns, explosive diahrrea, border crossings, lack of money, politicial turmoil and who knows what else. I can't wait!
Then the kids all played games and won “prizes” like towels and socks. Who picked those prizes? They also got tons of candy, cookies and some cheap-o toys. The new Christmas Princess was crowned and her court danced and generally sat around being adorable.
I’m telling you, the pageant thing starts early and they have them for EVERYTHING.
On Christmas day the older students from my Friday class came to draw the World Map. A few weeks before I had taken them around the neighborhood to ask for donations to buy the paints and other materials that we needed. This was the best thing I’ve done here. At first they were reluctant, shy, and nervous; they didn’t want to do it (except for Alison who I can always count on for enthusiasm, “yes, let’s go right now!”) I told them that this mural was going to benefit the whole community and so they should seek the support of the community members to pay for it. We went to the cancha first where a bunch of men who’d finished working were watching a game of voli. With the solicitud in hand we made our pitch and right away got almost 4 dollars. This invigorated my students and after about 2 hours of going from house to house (my community is really spread out) we had over $15. They wanted to keep going but it was getting late and I figured we had enough to buy what we needed and we did. I was really proud of them and happy that the majority of those we asked contributed something. Plus it made me feel really good that the girls were hanging all over me and talking about how much they were going to miss me, how they didn’t want me to go and how no one’s ever done anything like this with them. It made me happy that I dedicated so much time to working with children but also sad knowing I could have done more. I still had activities I wanted to do, lessons to teach, but time was running out and with no one to carry on the class after I left they would go back to sitting around being bored on Friday afternoons. Of course I want them to continue to learn, dream and try new things and I’d like to think that they will.
So after they painted a blue square that would be the ocean/backdrop of the map we had to decide on a time to draw and paint. Not everyone could do it that weekend, which was when I wanted to do it. They suggested Friday, Christmas day because they were off from school and because in Ecuador everyone celebrates on Christmas Eve and Christmas day is basically just a regular day. I figured it would be nice to make a special lunch for them and so I bought two chickens from my neighbor and even helped in their killing and plucking. Merry Christmas!
Drawing the world
Painting the world
I was excited to spend New Year’s here since I was in Argentina last year. The tradition is to burn an “año viejo” which are like effigies made out of old clothes and stuffed with paper or whatever you’ve got around. At the last minute David and I decided to make one because there was going to be a party (at the community building right in front of my house) and they were having a competition for the best año Viejo. You have to write a last will and testament for your character of what they’re leaving behind. So I decided, given the major economic crisis, that we would make a US banker type who stole all this money from the states and brought it to Ecuador and we wrote a bunch of things about my neighbors that they would think was funny, like “To Alcidiz I leave $1 to get a haircut” (he rocks a pretty sweet mullet.) Amateur fireworks of the Chinatown variety are a very big part of New Year’s and we stuffed our guy with a bunch of them for when he would be burned at midnight.
Before that though, I had to read the testament. I was the only one who had written one, and it went over well. There were five or six others, but we were the crowd favorite and we won half a crate (6 liters) of beer. Happy new beer! At midnight all the viejos were thrown into the street and set on fire. David and I ran to the house and grabbed our backpacks and ran around the house, as this is what you’re supposed to do if you’re traveling or want to travel in the New Year. Then we ran over and hugged and kissed and happy new yeared everyone. Then we continued dancing and enjoyed our victory beer. It was a good party.
In Ecuador it's not a party until there's a conga line
About a week into the New Year my puppy had a puppy. I was really upset that she got pregnant because of course it was my own fault. I tried to keep her inside during her heat and planned on injecting her with doggie birth control. I was worried about getting her fixed because I don’t know how competent the vets where I get her vaccinated are. I should have just gotten her fixed or asked around for a good vet but anyway…I didn’t. She was seduced by a dog so old that I was pretty certain he didn’t have it in him to do anything. I was wrong. I called the vet and they said I could bring her in to get an injection (like the morning after pill, but for dogs.) Well I don’t know if it didn’t work or if it did because she had just one puppy. It’s a girl and she’s already big and fat because, well, she’s got all that milk to herself. So now I have two puppies. And where I go, they go.
Fresa and Soledad
And where am I going anyway? Back to Bolivia of course. The plan is for David, the puppies, my friend Lebo (the only other gringa I know crazy enough to be on board for this) and I to travel in a truck which will be fitted with David’s ice cream machine so that we can work and travel throughout South America. Yes people, this is the plan, if you didn’t understand it I’ll say again: traveling around South America in an ice cream truck. I’ll soon have a new blog all about it, and I won’t even need a disclaimer….except maybe: don’t try this at home.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
But before we fast forward to January let’s rewind a bit. I want to share my best moments from the month of November, the things I’m most thankful for because Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday and it’s not the same spending it away from your family. Still, lots of good things happened and I’m always grateful to have the opportunity to be here doing what I’m doing. Wow, it must be Christmas time if I’m acting this sappy.
My house is a magnet for baby animals. Puppies and kittens think my house is their personal playground. I’m taking care of Pati’s puppy and Fresa is finally learning to share (a little, she is way too spoiled.)
Halloween’s in October but it’s practically November. David as Aladdin, Fresa as Apu, me as Jasmine.
Ecuador is full of waterfalls and they’re nice to look at, even when they completely drench you.
The three dances were the church dance (for some virgin or other, del Cisne I think), the school dance (for the end of the indor tournament, which if you’re wondering my team came in 4th…out of 4 women’s teams, we’re the best at being the worst!) and the highs school dance (to elect the Reina, or Beauty Queen, something that is very big here, there are Reinas for everything.) My rag tag group of friends and teammates were asked to perform a traditional folkloric dance for the church and school dances. This meant I had something to do at night between the hours of 7 and 9, the something being waiting around with my friends until everyone showed up and then rehearsing and arguing for about an hour. For the church dance I wasn’t allowed to be partnered with David because he’s a foot taller than me. I was kind of annoyed because obviously it would be more fun to dance with him than anyone else. But since it was a “competition” they wanted everything to be perfect to ensure our vicotry. We danced to national music, banda 24 de mayo to be exact, and wore traditional costumes. It was a lot of fun even though we messed up quite a bit. But we didn’t lose! We actually came in second place….out of the three groups that performed. But still, that meant $50 which we were going to put towards the rental of our costumes for the next dance, but more than half of it went to promptly buy celebratory beers.
The school dance was just for fun and the kids also performed dances which of course were super cute. We performed “La Venada Quinceñera.” Not only did I get to be partnered with David, I got the star role as the deer that is being hunted for the sweet 15 celebration and he was the hunter. It was so ridiculous. The deer costume made absolutely no sense, it was a short black skirt, arm and head bands with feathers and a mask. I just jumped around like a lunatic (my own choreography) and got to fake my death twice. All in all, it was a lot of fun and a big relief when they were both over with. It’s definitely not something I get to do in the states and I was really happy that they asked me to participate. Plus everyone loves to see the gringa make a fool of herself. Everyone wins! There are also videos which I´ll post eventually...i.e when it won´t take me 3 days to upload them.
Why do I have this bowl on my head?
About to be hunted
Hauling off their prey
At the high school dance my neighbor Gloria won Reina, in no small part because of our insane cheering section that kept screaming her name.
She´s 15, btw
This was the only baile that charged an entrance fee, proceeds going to the high school of course, but also there were performances, cumbia, reggaeton, a traditional coastal dance, all that good stuff. The dj played all the faves and the animador kept the crowd going. There were over 300 people there which just reaffirms what everyone keeps telling me about the workshops I do “You can get people to show up for a dance but they’re not going to show up to learn anything.” Still, I try…
Work in the past few months has been okay. The garden is going and we harvested 21 pounds of beans. My melon plants are not doing so well but I did harvest a tiny melon and made a juice that was delicious. 100% organic melon from your own garden, you can’t beat it! I finally got worms! Composting worms that is, not stomach worms although I wouldn’t be surprised… Anyway, after harassing the nearby University, calling them every day for nearly a month, they finally gave me a free bucket full of good garbage eating California red worms to make organic fertilizer for the organic garden. I know they had worms here before and they went uncared for, which is discouraging. After all worm humus is the best fertilizer for the cocoa bean plant that is the major crop cash here and it’s totally free to make. They take poop and turn it into brown gold for your plants! Why isn’t everyone as excited about this as I am?
It has been a super dry summer, way worse than last year’s which I got here for the tail end of. We have hardly had any running water these months which means lots of trips to the river and my neighbor’s well. If I didn’t have access to that well I would have no other means of getting halfway clean water to cook with, except to buy it which is what I started doing for my drinking water. Obviously the river water is only good for flushing the toilet since everyone washes their clothes and themselves in that water and it’s super contaminated. When it does rain I try to store as much as possible to water the plants with. We have a very high tech irrigation system consisting of me and whoever else is around to help and plastic bottles with holes in the cap. Whatever works.
Kids watering the beans
Ecuador is also in an electrical crisis because there’s no water to keep the turbines turning so every day they cut power for a couple of hours. It’s during the day, either in the morning or afternoon, so no big deal, just annoying when I start to make juice and don’t realize there’s no power until after I’ve got pieces of papaya floating in my blender.
I started my children’s club in October. “Caritas Felices” meets every Friday from 3-5 in the afternoon. It’s definitely the best thing I’ve done here. The kids are a handful but it’s so much better than my classes at school because I don’t have to teach English! I can teach them whatever I want! I mean, I try to be creative and teach useful information in my English classes as well, but the parents expect the pages of the English book that they bought to be filled and the students are used to just filling in pages as well with little creativity and room for deviation. But on Fridays I can customize the activities. It’s a little difficult because about half are older kids (10-13 range) that can read, write and handle more complex tasks. The rest of the kids are under 10 and can only handle simple tasks like drawing, coloring, and a few can read simple stories. But the older ones help the younger ones along and only get frustrated when they don’t understand the rules to a new game. They’ve learned some classics like Red Rover and Steal the Bacon, and when my friend Andrew came to visit he taught them ultimate Frisbee, which they loved. He was a PCV in Guatemala and said that he could never get them to understand the concept of the game. But my kids are as bright as the Ecuadorian sun, they caught on and made him play for well over an hour after our class had ended. He even left the Frisbee for me to continue using it with them (thanks Andrew!) Besides the games we learn and create as well. I gave them a charla about how long garbage takes to decompose and then we made race cars out of recycled toilet paper tubes, old boxes, straws and magazines. For Halloween we did a bunch of arts and crafts projects, they made masks and we trick-or-treated (i.e. I gave them bags of candy.)
Now we’re working on geography, a subject that they know shockingly little about (one of my brightest students thought Ecuador shared a border with the US, I think she was momentarily confused.) This will culminate in a World Map Project which is just painting a map on a wall so that the kids and really anyone in the town can refer to it and hopefully understand their relation to the rest of the world a little better.
I also attempted to start a club for parents as well, but surprise, surprise no one showed up. I ended up going from house to house asking my neighbors when they had time to meet (never) and how we could go about starting this support group for parents (we can’t), because from what I’ve seen here it’s very necessary (they don’t seem to agree.) I know Doña Zoila was interested (the same lady who always shows up to help in the garden) but it’s not much of a class with one or two people, especially when it’s supposed to be a support group for parents. So basically I have to turn informal house visits to my neighbors into talks about nutrition and discipline whenever possible. At least this way I don’t have to worry about all the petty feuds and gossip that seem to be abundant here. If a woman doesn’t get along with another woman who I’ve invited to participate and she knows that she may be there she’s not going to show up. It’s hard to live in such a small town and have so many people who don’t get along for whatever reason. Children are so much easier and they show up. Plus, I believe they’re the future, I think there’s even a song to that effect…
Saturday, September 5, 2009
A Family Affair, some of David´s many relatives:
Me and little brother Daniel
Great Grandmother Gratulina and Cousin Jairo
David and his sister Patricia (she´s single and wants me to introduce her to a gringo, preferably either Alok or Neil.)
The gringa portion of my birthday involved a reunion with most of my fellow Bolivia transfers whom I hadn´t seen since our second close of service (COS) conference in June. It was going to
be a sort of despedida but most everyone is staying past October now. So we made it into a sort of joint birthday celebration for me and Kasia, whose birthday is the day after mine. We headed to Guayaquil for a night time boat ride dressed as pirates. We took over the ship, and the open bar, dancing to Ecua hits along with classics by Michael Jackson, which we heavily requested. The next day David and I explored Guayaquil´s boardwalk by daylight. For me it´s the only draw the city offers, oh that plus the iguanas everywhere just hanging out. We got our fill of this expensive port city and headed home.
I´m glad I had an eye patch handy for yet another pirate encounter.
Speaking of birthdays, I was invited to my first Quinceñera. My neighbor´s daughter was turning 15 and this naturally called for chancho. They called in Jorge and Mario to kill, skin and gut a pig. Then it was time to cook fritada and chicaron in a giant pot on a wood fire outside. David decided to be the official pot stirrer and taste tester. The fritada involved frying up pig skin which they ate for lunch. The meat was cooked to make chicaron and served for dinner. I ate a lot of yucca, which was delicious and a lot less greasy. After dinner we danced, ate cake and I tried to avoid taking sots of a really gross sugar cane liquor mixed with pineapple juice that they kept passing around. Really nasty stuff. The next day while almost everyone was hungover I went to work in the garden feeling great.
On the other end of the spectrum, I also went to my first Ecua wake, which was a lot more gruesome than I expected. I wasn´t going to go because the deceased was not actually from my town and I didn´t know him, but he was the nephew of Don Jose, a prominent leader in the town whom I did know, so I went. I was quite surprised when I went up to view the body that it was covered in blood, had an obvious odor and the face was not even recognizable. Apparently this man had been shot three times a few days before and they hadn´t cleaned him up or even changed the clothes. This isn´t really the norm here, and it certainly took me by surprise. I left as soon as it was socially acceptable to do so.
I am certainly experiencing a lot of new things here and learning a lot about latin culture. Every day is a struggle but also an opportunity. Así es pues. Sometimes I wish I had more structure, better work opportunities, an established group to work with, a functioning project... But I´ve learned a lot about the way things work in development and it´s not easy. People have real lives, real problems and real obligations. They don´t always have time for even the best intentioned person trying to teach them something new. I feel lucky that I have an active social life, I´m integrated in my community to the point where people not only know my name, but they know my dog´s as well. A lot of times I think that if it wasn´t for David I would have given up a long time ago. He helps and supports me in everything I try to do. From working on the community garden to drawing the background for a puppet show, he´s always willing to lend me a hand and open to learning new things. He´s easily the best thing I´ve got going here and my best ¨student.¨ Not only does he no longer throw garbage out of bus windows or on the ground like most Ecuas, but he´s taken on my personal passion for recycling, coming up with a great idea to recycle the plastic bags from the ice cream cones for his uncle´s ice cream truck to plant more boya tree seeds. Plus he was all for dressing up like a pirate. What more could a girl ask for?