Friday, December 12, 2008

C is for Cookie, that’s good enough for me

Ecuador, when compared with Bolivia, is a very developed country. It’s a tourist destination, the local currency is the dollar, and everyone owns a cell phone that is more expensive than mine. Still, my neighbor, who has a lovely new refrigerator but no electricity hooked up yet, can’t afford for her two youngest kids to go to school, although I still don’t fully understand why. Maybe people are just living beyond their means, like they often do in the states, in order to have all the status symbols, TVs, stereos, trucks, some people even have washing machines. I can guarantee you that no one in the town where I lived in Bolivia could afford to buy a washing machine, not even close. Everyone in this area produces plantains, pineapple, and yucca for the local markets and cocoa and malanga (which I think is taro root?) for export to the US. What the farmers here need is to find a way to get their product to markets without having to sell first to a middle man who then sells their product for a higher profit. This is a bit of a challenge for me because it’s not like there is an organized group of farmers all united to look for markets for their products, it’s more like everyone has their own piece of land and they have a contact who brings their product to Quito or wherever to sell it. I don’t know, I’m certainly no expert in Ecuadorian agricultural markets so I’m still trying to figure it out. Meanwhile, I’m trying to organize a group of women to work on the recycled paper project, which right now is…well, jodido is the only word that seems to fit. The project is screwed, they have all this equipment (minus the $400 blender that is “missing”) and they were making a lot of paper (over a year ago,) they had a lot of orders and everything, but then the woman who was kind of organizing the project got a job and it kind of just stopped. So the workshop remains empty and I’m trying to see if there is any interest at all in starting things up again, which there supposedly is. So now it’s just a matter of all those tricky logistics like organizing people, getting the materials that we falta and actually working.

So what have I been doing with myself over the last month? Baking cookies mostly. The “associates” and I talked about having charlas about nutrition and various topics of my “expertise” every Wednesday before the community bank meeting. It was basically like we were doing a bait and switch on the community, “Oh, you’re here for the bank meeting? Well you have to listen to the gringa talk about nutrition first.” No one wants to be forced to attend a lecture about nutrition so I knew the first one would have to be good, something that would make people happy and keep them interested, and that of course means playing a game and having free food, the two keys to any good charla. So, I don’t know if many of you know about my friend Sergio Saludable. I used him for a nutrition charla in Bolivia, but I left him there with a bunch of other materials to give to the school so I had to create Sergio el Segundo. My first topic was the 3 food groups, as they are know in Latin America. (Formadores, foods that form us, protectores, foods that protect us and energeticos, foods that give us energy.) So, after explaining what each group consisted of I handed out all these pictures of different foods and they had to walk up to my good friend Sergio and place them in the correct category, and the prize for placing it correctly of course was an oatmeal raisin cookie. They really seemed to enjoy it and I was very relieved. I put up the recipe for the cookies and told them I would leave it up until next week since most of them didn’t have a pen and paper with them. The following week I decided to make a quinoa salad since I was talking about protein and it is a complete protein that is delicious (I think if you have heard the song I wrote about quinoa then you know how much I love it). I tried my best to convince them that they could eat at least one meal a day with quinoa instead of rice (which is eaten in heapfuls at every meal) but you know, that’s the custom so it’s hard to break out of that. The next week they learned about vitamins and minerals, played another game and ate some more cookies, peanut butter ones this time (full of protein)! I just love the irony of talking about nutrition and handing out cookies at the same time. But they’ve never eaten these types of things before and they really like that I give them the recipes so they can make them. Everyone wants to know what else I can make. They invite me over to their houses to make soy milk and pumpkin pie, so it’s been a great way of getting to know people and integrate into my community. This week pizza!

Besides my Betty Crocker activities I have been lucky enough to get to know a little more of Ecuador and the volunteer community here. Unlike in Bolivia, we don’t have regional offices, there’s just the one main office in Quito. I think the regional office thing was something that Bolivia actually had right, it was a way for volunteers to have resources close by, get free books and materials to use in site and it was a way to meet up with other volunteers since everyone had to go into the regional city at least once a month to get their paycheck. Here, we just have cluster cities, where our mail is sent and we are supposed to get our money and do our shopping if we don’t have things available in our sites, but there is no office, no library, all supplies are mailed from Quito. But the cool thing is that since volunteers don’t all meet up in the city at once they travel around and visit other volunteers in their sites more. Visiting volunteers in their sites was one of my favorite things about PC Bolivia, too. It’s always great to see where other volunteers live and work. You can talk about projects, share resources and also provide much needed emotional support, just being able to vent in English is always appreciated. So my Santo Domingo “cluster” had a little getting to know you weekend in Mindo, which is a beautiful little town known for its excellent bird watching. I have to say there are some very lucky volunteers in PC Ecuador. Of the sites I’ve seen so far they are all beautiful, with hiking, waterfalls and amazing views. Ecuador is one of the greenest places I’ve ever seen in my life, I’m just constantly in awe of how alive and vibrant it is here. I went swimming near a small waterfall on the way to Mindo at the site of another volunteer and I just thought “Will I ever get tired of doing things like this? Will there ever be a point where I say, okay, I’ve seen enough amazingly beautiful things, I don’t need to see anymore.” And I think the answer is a definitive no, it would be impossible for me to stop wanting to experience things like diving into the freezing cold water next to a waterfall. In Mindo we went hiking to a 70 meter waterfall, and Kasia and I struck our best senior yearbook poses. It was a great weekend that made me feel extremely lucky, for once, that I am in Ecuador. Given the circumstances (of having to leave Bolivia) I was feeling very apprehensive about my decision to start again somewhere new. It would have been so easy just to stay in the US, it was so hard to leave everyone again, and for what, I think as I stare at myself in the mirror. But in PC things get exponentially better the longer you are in the same place. You have to work on it, but you just come to appreciate the little things more. I feel so fortunate to be in Ecuador, and to be in a site where I actually have Ecuadorian friends (ranging in age from 6 to 86) and while the volunteer community here is definitely different than what I had in Bolivia, it is still a source of support and comfort knowing that people are just a phone call or a text away.

The other big event here was of course, Thanksgiving, also known as my favorite holiday. My mom had the great idea to have Thanksgiving in the states before I left in October, but even though Fakesgiving was a lot of delicious fun with family and friends, I still wanted to celebrate here. Most of my fellow transferees from Bolivia were going to be in Loja for Thanksgiving so on Wednesday night I got on a 12 hour overnight bus and headed to Loja to join them for the festivities. It was so great to see my Bolivians (as we are known here) and meet some more of the Ecua volunteers. The festivities were complete with a football game at the stadium in Loja and a huge pot luck dinner at a vols house, which incidentally looks like a spaceship and has a disco in the building, with this bizarre robot speaker system. Here we are doing a “Bolivian” (i.e. no smiling) picture with the robot. All the food was delicious and before leaving at the end of the night people scavenged for whatever was leftover until basically everything was gone. Here is the before and after:

The next day some of us headed to Lindsey’s site to learn about her paper project. She is working with a women’s group that has a recycled paper business that was started by another PCV in 1998. The project is pretty successful and they make a really beautiful product. It was helpful for me to see how they were organized, what kind of equipment they use and what kinds of products they were making, how much they charged, all the important stuff so that I could show the women in my community, “see, it can work, we can do this too!” I of course bought lots of stuff to show them and also because they make really nice cards and books and well, Christmas is right around the corner. We stayed close by in Vilcabamba, a town that is supposed to have the “ideal conditions for human life,” there are lots of people over 100 years old who live there, they say it’s either something about the water, or the Vilcabamba brand cigarettes that they make there. Who knows? It was a really beautiful town and we stayed at this gorgeous hostel, where I slept better than I have since getting here, for 9 bucks a night. They have a restaurant that serves what is probably the best food I’ve had in Ecuador so far. On Saturday we did a 3 hour hike around the mountains of Vilcabamba. I thought it was one of those leisurely let’s go hike to that waterfall kind of hikes but then Megan informed me that all the trails here had a rating and it was rated a 4 out of 5 in difficulty. Well, no big deal, I did just hike up Wannu Pichu and I love hiking, I can handle it! So, I pretty much felt like I was going to die for the first hour up. I choose to believe that I am not as out of shape as I appeared and that it was the altitude and heavy Thanksgiving dinner that was affecting me. After the hardest part was over I felt a lot better and then it was just about enjoying the gorgeous views and not falling off the extremely narrow trail. I felt a great sense of accomplishment when we finished and celebrated by eating Mexican food in town, still in our sweaty hiking attire. On Sunday it was back to Loja, where most everything was closed of course, and I got on another 12 hour overnight bus which made no stops for bathroom breaks and was way more crowded than the bus coming down. I got into Santo Domingo early in the morning and then headed back to site. It felt good to be “home” and have my Ecua friends ask me about my trip and tell me they missed me.

While I was away the church that I sometimes go to with my counterpart’s family had their anniversary celebration and apparently the larger church in Luz de America was having their celebration that coming weekend. A group of people from the community were going to perform a dance there, which they had just performed that past weekend, where they wear ropa de viejos (old people clothes), put pillows and balloons underneath to give themselves big butts, stomachs and hunched backs, and wear masks and wigs. Viviana asks me if I want to be a part of the dance. Of course I want to be a part of that, who wouldn’t? So we have a couple of rehearsals where we practice the “dance” which just consists of wearing this ridiculous clothing and dancing as absurdly as possible. For the finale we dance to this abuelo song and act like old people and we’re supposed to fall down at the end. So when Saturday comes we all have our costumes ready, mine is a long black skirt with a black top, Joker mask and shiny wig, and we pile in the back of Jorge’s truck to go to Luz de America. There must have been like 30 people in that truck, it was packed. We get there and wait for the mass to end and the performances to start. There are a few dances that go on before us so we go to the truck, aka our dressing room to get changed. Marlon, Daniel, Juan Daniel and Paula are all cross dressing, which seems to be pretty common here and the boys seem especially enthusiastic about wearing skirts and having balloon breasts. The highlight of the evening is definitely when this 15 year old kid from my town, who was going around feeling up people’s balloons, pinches my boob thinking that it is fake and then gets so embarrassed that he can’t even look at me for the rest of the night. I don’t think either of us are going to hear the end of that for a while, everyone was hysterical. We had practiced the dance to these 4 specific songs that were all cut together and burned to a CD by Karina, but when we get there they can’t find the CD, of course, so we end up performing to different music, except for that abuelo song at the end, which incidentally I’ve heard over 100 times since my neighbor has the same 10 songs on loop everyday. The dance goes over well, people laugh and we look like idiots, a good time is had by all. We go back to the truck to change and then watch the celebratory fireworks which culminate in the burning of a tower that then reveals a picture of Jesús de Gran Poder, the name of the church and congregation that the church in my town is part of. I have to say I was pretty impressed by the fireworks, and the Jesus thing was a really nice touch. Then we get back into the truck and head home flying down the windy highway and then slowly down the dirt road of my town, recounting things that just happened. Didn’t Marlon look good as la secretaria? Remember when Paul accidentally felt up Michelle? That was so funny!

I’m sure this doesn’t really come as a surprise to anyone but I love Ecuador.

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