Monday, October 25, 2010

Adios, Los Naranjos

It’s been nine hours since we loaded up into trucks and out of Los Naranjos, and I already miss it. The last two weeks we were there, I had really started to become accustomed and to appreciate the way of life there. Surrounded by jungle and nature, supported by a close community, with no real stresses or worries, the daily routine became a meditation of sorts. Every night, I would walk the dirt road home as the sun set behind my back, finally reaching my house a few minutes after dark. Kiara, my host sister, would then run out to greet me and follow me into my room, where she’d proceed to go through—and sometimes lick and bite—all of my belongings. After dinner, we would all sit around the rickety plastic table and have conversations that lasted up to an hour. We (and when I say we I mean Connor translating) would talk about things ranging from politics to movies to environmental degradation. I learned so much, not only about Ecuadorian culture, but about my host parents individually. For example, my host father is a DJ on the weekends at a local radio station. Both of my host parents finished high school, a feat that is extremely rare in the community.

Our conversations almost always ended with Manuel´s line of “Bueno chicos...,” which was our cue for bedtime. With no light in our room, we’d read or listen to music in the light of our headlamp and fall asleep to a soundtrack of roosters, barking dogs, or, when we were lucky, random cats fighting in our kitchen.

I got a cold/flu type thing this past week, so I didn’t work on Wednesday or Thursday, but I think those two days were among my favorites during our time in the village. Each morning, I walked with my host mother and sister to a tiny store inside another family´s home. On the way there, my host mother picked a cacao fruit for me to eat, showed me a plant that closed up on itself when touched, and pointed out pineapple fields and papaya trees. One day at the store she bought me cookies and a frozen milk popsicle. Another day she bought me potato chips. And because Ecuadorians love their mayonaise so much, it came with a pack inside the bag of chips. I have to say though, the combination wasn’t actually that bad. After our stop at the store one day, we went next door to Lister’s grandmother’s house. Her house is very new, still under construction in fact. It has running water, two bathrooms with flushing toilets and showers, a digital photo frame, computer, and probably at least six rooms. They have to be the richest family in the entire community, if not the entire surround area. It was strange for me that these things that I consider “normal” appeared so out of place.

For our last night the community put on a despedida, or farewall party, for us. It started off with our media project presentations. All of the groups´projects turned out excellently. One group focused on monoculture and made a cookbook of plantain recipes, another ´s was centered on traditional garments, and my group’s was on traditional medicine. After that, the first item on the party agenda was for the men to dye their hair the traditional red color. We also used a dye found in a plant to paint lines and designs on our bodies. Right now, I’m rocking a sun and some other tribal designs on my arms. As this was going on, some Tsa’chilas started to bring out pitchers of chicha, a drink of fermented corn and sugar cane, and served some to us in gourds. To follow this up, Alejandro and the shaman, Andres, performed a cleansing ritual on us. Then the games began. We had tug of war, a game involving a banana being passed down a line, a chicha drinking competition, spearthrowing, and of course music and dancing. Not to brag or anything, but I was the winner of the chicha drinking competition. Well, I beat the other TBB girls, but was outdone by a Tsa’chila women. I still won a prize of two aluminum plates though! I also won a prize in the spearthrowing competition because I was the only woman to hit the tree that we were aiming for. That prize was arguably even better than the plates: roll-on antiperspirant and a pair of nylon socks. When we were all finished with dinner, which consisted of beef, salad, and a toasted plantain served on a large leaf, we all sat around to watch a fireworks show. The fireworks were lit off probably about 20 yards from where we were sitting. I definitely had ash falling on me. Easy to see them at least! Our host families presented us all with gifts after that. Mine was an awesome rainbow striped purse. When all of that was over, we cranked up the music on the stereo for a dance party.

My night didn’t end when the party was over though. I got a ride partway home in the back of a truck. I’m surprised we all made it out alive. There were probably 15 people in the bed of the truck, hanging out the sides and off the edges. It sounded like it was about to break down at any moment and barely made it up the hills. And to top it all off, there were no headlights so we had to shine our headlamps out in front for the driver to see.

This morning we all had to say our goodbyes. A few of the host parents even started crying. I was sad to leave our bubble of safety and comfort, not to mention the fresh avocados and bananas. But I know that I have a standing invitation for a place to stay if I ever return to Ecuador. The people I’ve met and things I’ve experienced have been so amazing. When I think back to how I was feeling before I went into this homestay I can’t help but laugh. I was dreading the weeks I was going to have to spend with the snakes and spiders and mosquitoes. But now I wish I were back in my wooden house, attempting to converse in broken spanish to my host parents, with Kiara hanging by my side.

But for now, I’m going to get my laundry together and rest up before we go out to dinner. There are certain things that are nice about being back in the “real world...”


Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Week in the Bubble

Last Friday marked the one-month mark in the journey. It’s like I’ve been living in some strange, warped time zone; it feels like it’s at least been two, maybe even three months. Then again, I’ve had it in my head for so long that this is an eight month trip. And now it’s down to seven. Crazy.

Our past weekend in Bahia was filled with some of the best and some of the worst moments on the trip. One of the highlights was visiting an eco-village named Bella Vista. This 500 person community is focused on environmental sustainability and education, especially with their kids. As we were being led on a tour of their community, we were invited to their clean up and party the following day. Even though we were scheduled to return to Los Naranjos, luckily the program leaders were able to work it out to make it possible for us to stay the extra day! And I’m so glad we did. We ended up painting a mural on one of the walls in their town and got to join in their party. Definitely one of the best days so far. We also celebrated Hannah’s birthday with some chocolate cake, nutella brownies, pizza, and a piƱata.

And the bad of Bahia…
Eight people got sick. Three went to the doctor. People were literally dropping by the hour. All of a sudden, another person would just be out. There was also lots of drama, as we were faced with the question of whether or not two of our group members had to be sent home for breaking an alleged zero-tolerance rule. After many group talks, late nights, and emotions, the two were allowed to stay.

The week back in Los Naranjos has been filled with lots of work, seminars, reading, and of course walking. Things are settling into a routine. We’re learning about environmental issues of all sorts, and it’s all really interesting for me. This is the portion of the trip that I was most looking forward to when it comes to the learning subject, and I’m excited about the seminars we have coming up. We’ve started working on our media projects. I’m in a group with Kasha, Mckinley, Mary, and Alex. We decided to focus our project on the subject of traditional medicine to make a video and book. Alejandro and the other shaman here took us on a walk through the jungle and showed us lots of different medicinal plants. We are starting to go through it all to create a storyline for our video. We only have two weeks to make it, so we’ll definitely need to be efficient.

We celebrated Montana’s birthday last night with a community party. It was also Faith and Rachel’s host mom’s birthday, so the Tsa’Chilas were there too. Thanks to Roberto’s fancy new speakers, we were able to have a dance party in the community center.

Tomorrow (well I guess it’s today as I have to post this from there) we’re heading into Santo Domingo. There’s a store there where you can find all of the traditional Tsa’Chila clothing and souvenirs that we’re going to. I feel a little uneasy about it because it seems almost like they’ve sold out, but I need to see it before I really make a judgment. We’re also going to a mall to find some internet cafes as well as load up on snacks and other necessary goods. A few of the lingering sickies are making a trip to the hospital too. It’ll be a little day trip out of the Los Naranjos bubble.

My host mom has pulled out the wood board that only means only thing: for dinner we’re getting the log. Boiled plantains, mashed up and rolled into a dense, tasteless cylinder of mush. And I’ve just been called to the table. Can’t wait!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Into the Jungle

I’m having a hard time starting this blog post, because I honestly don’t know how to begin. So much has happened in the last week and a half that we’ve been in Ecuador. I’ll try to get it all out as best as I can.

We arrived in Quito last Monday, and spent the following days exploring the city and attending lectures and orientations at Yanapuma, our partner non-governmental organization. They aid indigenous tribes in Ecuador, focusing on health, agriculture, and sustainable development and really emphasize the sustainability of their work, making sure that the aid they give can be perpetuated by the people they are helping, using a “help them help themselves” method. We learned about Ecuadorian culture, current issues, and politics; got some insight into the community we’d be living with; and even had a few Spanish lessons (Yanapuma also is a Spanish school). Since I know absolutely no Spanish, I was put into the basics class with about six other people. None of us knew Spanish and our teacher didn’t know English. It was humorous to say the least. I actually feel like I did get something out of it though.

Throughout the week, anticipation built as we awaited the day that we’d head out to Los Naranjos for our first homestay. Los Naranjos is one of only seven Tsa’ Chila villages. In fact, there are only 2,500 Tsa’ Chila left in total. We heard it was going to be very rural, and had heard a few horror stories from past years’ students about various things—bugs, food, snakes, bathing in the river, etc. Needless to say, we were all very nervous and excited. We took a bus from Quito to Santo Domingo, where we then loaded into two trucks. Yes, we fit 21 people into two trucks. Definitely not legal or safe or comfortable. All in all, the journey took about five hours. We were welcomed at the Cultural Center by all of the host families and Alejandro, the cultural leader, and then made our ways toward our houses.

My host family consists of two parents—Manuel, who is 25, and Listel, 22, (not sure about the spelling on that...)—and a three-year-old girl named Kiara. We live in a compound of sorts. Manuel’s father, seven siblings, and cousins all live in houses surrounding us. There are also TONS of chickens, ducks, and dogs, a donkey, and also a pig. There’s no running water, although there is electricity. There’s an outhouse out back for our bathroom needs, and a stream for bathing and laundry.

The homestay started out really tough, for a few different reasons. The language barrier is one of them. My homestay partner, Connor, has Spanish down pretty well, so that helps a lot. But when it comes to one-on-one situations, things get a bit choppy. On top of that, it’s been very interesting being paired up with a boy. Ecuadorian culture is quite male-centered, and I’ve definitely felt that first-hand. The first night we were here, rarely anyone in the family talked to me or asked me questions. All were directed at Connor. I’m sure part of that was the language barrier, but they didn’t really care if they got an answer from me or not. It’s gotten better as I’ve been here more, but it’s definitely a strange feeling.

The tribal culture here is not as prevalent as I had imagined. Alejandro dies his hair red in the traditional manner, and many women wear traditional striped skirts, but other than that, I feel that it’s quite modern. Most families even have TVs, cell phones, and motorcycles. My host parents told us that they love American movies and music (James Bond, The Titanic, and Rambo are some of their favorites.) There are cultural differences though, for sure. I have eaten so many variations of plantains and rice over the past few days. We’ve had boiled green plantains; plantains fried like fritters; plantains with cheese; plantains boiled, mashed up, and then rolled into what we call “the log”; plantain juice; and plantain chip-type things. Last night we had some excitement when my host parents came home with a big bag. Inside was a live chicken which, as Manuel told us, was to be our dinner. Then they took the bird out of the bag, put it on the counter in the kitchen, and slit its throat. We all thought it was dead. Until it started flapping its wings and sqwuaking. Blood and feathers were flying. It was crazy. Eventually, it was all taken care of though, and later we sipped our chicken soup. OH, I also ate a grub. Yes. They used an axe to cut open a log, then we picked the grubs out and ate them. They were pretty juicy, and I thought they tasted like a mix of chicken and fish. Not too bad really. I also ate raw cacao fruit and seed!

Our work project here deals with reforestation. With Yanapuma’s coordination, our goal is to plant 8,000 trees along three different rivers’ banks. We work from 8:30 to 12:30 every morning, hauling the tree seedlings in baskets, digging holes, and planting the trees in the jungle. And when I say jungle, I mean jungle—vines, snakes, big spiders, and everything. We were all a little bit confused at first as to why we were planting more trees here, because it seemed so full of life already. But as we found out, the trees we are planting will not only be of use to the Tsa’Chila, but will help prevent erosion from the river. It’s tiring work! So far, we’re three days down, 14 to go.

My house is about a thirty minute walk away from the cultural center, which is where we meet every afternoon for discussions. We’re by far the farthest away from everything. We've had to walk 30-50 minutes to get to our work sites, too. We tried to guess our daily mileage of walking, and came up with 10 miles. I’ve only been on one run here so far because it seems like we’re always moving!

That doesn’t even begin to cover everything, but I have to stop somewhere. We’re now in the beach town of Bahia de Carraquez for the weekend. We’re all excited to have hot showers, internet (although it barely works), and restaurants.

And for anyone who has heard about the situation in Ecuador, here’s all that I know: apparently the whole police force has decided not to work, resulting in bank robberies and a rise in other crimes too. There are riots in Quito and other cities, the president was injured, and Ecuador is in a “state of emergency” for a week. We’re safe though! And taking many precautions. So no worries.

I’m off for my first run in a while now. And looking forward to a hot shower when I get back. Yay!