Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I’ve been teaching English at the Centro Artisanal ever since I got here, and all in all it’s been interesting, for better or worse. For one thing, it’s frustrating. The students in the class are products of the crappy education system here, so they have no idea how to learn. Also, from the administrative side, teaching sucks here, but I assume it’s not too much worse that a terrible intercity school in the states. Anyway, teaching English class here in a formal setting is basically just an annoying pain in the ass. So why do I do it? It provides me with a group of 45 women who know me and like me. I can use this to establish all kinds of groups. I’ve recently started a women’s running group, and in the future I want to start a women’s cooking class.
But let’s talk about the running group. I wanted to start this group because there are no opportunities for women to exercise here. The majority of the men spend the day doing manual labor, then the afternoons playing sports, so most are in really good shape. In contrast, women get up to cook, clean, and sit around the house all day. So I wanted to do something about that. The idea was received extremely well. Probably half of the 45 person class was really for going running with me. The only time they all could do it was 5am, so that’s what we agreed one. I began waking up at 4:30, but no one showed up. The next day I reminded everyone, no one showed up again. The third day, I said something, and reminded the women that if they wanted to run, they could the next morning. Finally, on the fourth day, 6 people showed up. I said 5am sharp, so naturally they rolled up at 5:30. And as it turns out, it was impossible to run because only 6 women were there. That makes sense. So they said to reschedule it for the next week, and they would remind their friends. Next week rolled around, no one showed.
Turns out, you can’t just establish a friendly, voluntary group. Ecuador just loves pomp and circumstance, so when you do anything (absolutely anything!) you need to sign your name and give your personal ID number. For example, the schools don’t actually teach the kids anything, but they have a bunch of papers with signatures and ID numbers saying they do, so everything’s legit.
Anyway, if I want women to start running, I’m going to have to get some kind of list with all their names, id numbers, copies of the equivalent of their social security card, a notary, and Barack Obama to give a speech (in Spanish) at the inception. I’ll let you know how things turn out.
So I’ve started to run again. After 9 years of competitive running, I was pretty burned out at first and vowed to never run again. People play a lot of indoor and voli here, so I have plenty of opportunities to get the ants out of my pants. However, for some reason (most likely lack of people and lack of ball) they stopped playing indoor, which is a shame because I love indoor and up until that point it was my game of choice. So I started playing voli exclusively. At first nobody wanted me on their team because I didn’t know how to play, so I just sat and watched, which made me antsy. After a while I learned how to play, and was then better than most because I’m about 5 feet taller than the average Ecuadorian. Now it’s hard for me to play because nobody wants to play against me and lose money (not betting is simply unheard of). So on the days that I can’t persuade anyone to play against me, I just go for a run. I keep it short and easy, partly because I don’t want to ruin my fast twitch muscles for jumping and spiking, and partly because I’m ridiculously out of shape. Anyway, most of the time I go for a run, a group of several little kids tags along. It’s neat because these kids are the coolest ever, but it’s also kind of lame because when they tag along I can’t actually run…some of the kids are like 5 years old.
Anyway, on one such day the kids just wanted to keep going and going. They really wanted to go to Miasi, despite the fact that they kept getting tired and began walking within 5 minutes of starting. This walking was interspersed with 23 seconds of all out sprinting. Also, running to Miasi and back takes me about 45 minutes when I’m alone and going at an easy clip. I told them this. I also told them that even though they were tired now, we would have to walk back just as far as we had come. They were undeterred. They really wanted to go to Miasi and go swimming in the river. I really wanted to make running into a cool adventure and escape from the daily routine for these kids, so I agreed. Oops.
Eventually we did arrive in Miasi, which took a lot longer than I thought it would. But it was totally worth it. I took the kids across this scary bridge, which turned out to be the 3rd world equivalent of a team building high ropes course. Also, on the bridge we came across some dude that had just killed a 3 meter long boa. He was carrying it’s skin, which he had just removed and smelled like the reptile house at the Columbus Zoo. He gave it to me as a gift, so now I have some boa skin. La madre de la casa wants to clean it and hang it up on the wall. It complements my giant fossilized shells that I picked up earlier. Maybe one day ill have enough cool stuff to open an emporium.
But I digress. We went swimming. But I told the kids we had to get moving soon because it would be dark in an hour, and we had an hour and a half walk ahead of us. My bad. The kids said they were fine to run, but after about a minute it was clear that they weren’t. I felt like an idiot. As the one somewhat responsible quasi adult in the group I let a bunch of 5 year olds make the decisions, and I believed them when they told me they could handle the running. Lesson learned.
So we were walking back. I want to say right now that these kids are freakin troopers. Never once did they complain or ask for a juice box, oreo cookies, or if we could go through a McDonalds drive through. However, they were getting tired, and I was a little frustrated at myself for letting this happen. But…I managed to turn it into one of the more beautiful moments of my time so far. We were walking back over rolling hills into a 360 degree jungle sunset and I was taking turns carrying the little tykes on my back, and they were taking turns carrying the giant snake skin.
With about 15 minutes of walking left, the last bus of the night came, which agreed to carry us for free. It was packed, so I pushed the kids in then hung out the door as the tall grass along side of the road whipped me in the face as we went zooming along, a penance for being stupid. I returned all the kids safe and sound… the perfect ended to a very cool experience.
So last Monday Corrie and I tried to go to Zamora for a meeting with a doctor. The meeting was to be a brainstorming session about how to approach the problem of littering in our province. And it is a big problem. If there isn’t a trash can directly under the hand holding the trash to be thrown away, that trash is invariably littered. Thrown in the road, river, whatever. Nasty.
So we wanted to have a meeting to try to do something about it. That didn’t happen. Let me tell you why.
First of all, a brief history. My province is one of the most gold rich regions in the world, and there are a ton of gold mines around. Rich foreign gold miners get even richer, but poor people in my region get screwed over because the mines contaminate the water and farms. So the people want the mines out. The president said he would kick them out, but hasn’t yet because he gets a small part of the gold profits. So, whenever Ecuadorians want to protest something, they burn tires in the road and set up road blocks.
Which is what they did on the road to Zamora and all throughout Ecuador on this given day. People told us this, and said that if we still wanted to get to Zamora, we would have to get out and walk for an hour than wait for another bus on the other side of the road block. So we decided to do that.
This is the scene we rolled up to: police men fleeing on foot and in truck as rock throwing protesters pursued them. Their faces were covered with bandanas or shirts to protect them from the tear gas the police had been throwing.
No big deal. So we started to walk. We were met with lots of stares by rock, stick, and machete wielding rioters. Also, chants like “out with foreign miners”. Good thing were not foreign miners, right? We would have been in big troub… wait a second… we look an awful lot like foreign miners…hmmm.
Luckily I ran into someone I knew from Guayzimi. He was stationed by a pile of burning tires, and his friends and he were collecting rocks to fight with. The leader was instructing everyone to cover their faces, and telling 5 guys to go up on the hill for a better rock throwing position. I was talking to this guy, and asked if it was dangerous. He said only if the police start to fight us. But the rioters aren’t going to attack a couple foreigners…are they? “I hope not” was his answer…
I figured that most likely we would not get stoned to death, which would be a favorable outcome. But knowing what I know about social psychology and mob mentality, I knew it only took one hot-headed drunk to throw the first stone, then many others would undoubtedly follow suit. Also, I knew that as the day went on and they became more irritated by tear gas, they would really be looking for a fight by nightfall…which is when we would have to walk back through that mess on our way home.
So we decided to turn back. Luckily we found one of Corrie’s Ecuadorian friends who was walking in the same direction, so he accompanied us and nothing happened. Cool story though…sorry, mom.
Last Saturday I dropped Emily off at the airport. The second time saying goodbye to her wasn’t any easier than the first, especially after an extremely romantic last night together. All the Ecua-food finally caught up to her and she couldn’t sleep because she was pretty sick. Turns out it was either e. coli or salmonella or something like that. Anyway, after a relatively sleepless night (for me… for her I think it was totally sleepless) we got up early to go to the airport. I was sad to see her go, and she was sad take an intercontinental flight with diarrhea and fever.
After buying a bunch of comfort food and DVDs in the big city, I caught the last bus to Guayzimi. This took even longer than usual, due to three road blocks instead of one, and the fact that the driver made everyone wait for an hour as he took a leisurely dinner break. So on top of being tired I was annoyed. I couldn’t wait to get to my bed and pass out. Apparently, I passed out even before getting into my bed, because the bus helper shook me awake. I was still pretty out of it, so animal instincts kicked in and I judo chopped his hand away. I was embarrassed for a second, and regretted going all Jackie Chan on his ass. Then he asked, “Why didn’t you get off at Guayzimi?” I replied, “Why no awake me to know this?” and wished that I had gone even more Jackie Chan on his ass. So I was in Zurmi, a half an hour bus ride from Guayzimi and my bed. It was 11pm and there were no more buses leaving. So I walked around and tried to find a camioneta to drive me back. None. There were about three people awake at that hour, and I asked them if they had or new anyone with a truck. Nope. Luckily though, one of the women recognized me as a FODI worker, and kicked her son out of his bed to let me sleep there for the night, which turned out to be extremely lucky. If that didn’t happen, my choices would have been to make the 2 or 3 hour trek back to Guayzimi in the middle of the night with a bunch of backs of groceries or sleep on the street.
Cabanas Yankuam

My little corner of Ecuador has been trying to improve tourism for a while. It’s one of their goals to generate some cash flow. That being said, there is no tourism in my site. Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen two tourists. And as far as I could tell, the only money they brought into the town was for the 10 bucks they paid to rent a two person room for the night. They didn’t even buy dinner. I was so excited to see other gringos I invited them to dinner. Tuna tacos. Mmmmmm.
The only tourism thing we have going on for us is one little cabin in the jungle. And the cabanas have a truck, so they usually pick up tourists from the city and bring them straight to the cabanas, bypassing all of the little towns along the way that could use the gringo money.
Anyway, I’m trying to help develop tourism as a little side project of mine. This weekend I went to the cabanas to speak with the owner to bounce ideas off one another. I got there just in time to hop on a jungle tour boat with a total bird nerd and his wife (Bryan: I would love to see the two of you engaged in a mental fight to the death using only knowledge of Orange Throated Tanagers) and a 60 year old hippie on a 6 year (yes YEAR) backpacking trip through south America.
We went to “the Labyrinths” to hike and look for rare birds. The hike was cool, but the dude never saw his bird. That didn’t stop him from making us wait a buttload of time to try and encounter it. During this time, I managed to swing on vine like Tarzan, then a little while later I caught a wild boar with my bare hands. Yes, it’s true, I did. Never mind that it was about 2 days old, and only needed a bare hand, not hands, to catch it.
This is how it went down. It waddled across the path, the guide and I got really excited, and we ran after it to try to catch it. We didn’t think about the fact that baby wild animals usually have mother wild animals nearby, and that these mother wild animals are usually pretty pissed off. Luckily, the mother wasn’t nearby, and as I held the cute little piglet in my hand, it dawned on me how lucky I was to NOT have a 300 pound tusked animal disemboweling me.
At this point I was ready to release it back into the wild. The only reason I wanted to catch it was to saw that I caught a wild boar with my bare hands. And I did say that…twice now. Mission accomplished. Anyway, a different tour group came by, and one of the women decided that she was going to take the boar and raise it. We tried to argue with her, but she was an idiot, and wouldn’t listen. When we got back to the boats, we found out that they also thought it would be a good idea to take a baby bird and one of those giant centipede things from the jungle. They lost interest in the bird as soon as they stole it, so as the only person living on the continent in my tour group the charge fell on me to take care of it. Which I did. I named him Mordachay (or however you spell that). He died 2 days later. I tried my best to rear him, but his life ended by me shoveling him to death after he quit eating and turned all stiff on me.
The other day Marisol and I went to a little town to do some “work”. We had 6 kids to measure and weigh, and we had just less than 7 hours to do it. I was worried we wouldn’t have enough time, but everything turned out to be O.K. Activities to kill time included playing voli, having political conversations, and playing on the swings with the kids. This proved to be the most interesting.
So kids here basically run crazy, which I think I’ve mentioned before. The three women who worked in the FODI center (essentially a dare care center for kids aged 2 to 5) were inside gabbing with Marisol while the kids were outside, swinging out of control 2 to a swing, on a rickety homemade swing set. I figured I’d go outside and look after the kids to make sure nothing happened. I turned out to have exactly the opposite effect.
About 20 minutes after I started playing with the kids, one went flying off the swings and started to cry. This is really common, so I wasn’t too worried. Plus, it gave me a chance to pick up a cute little kid and comfort him for a while. He hadn’t even peed his pants recently, so that was a plus.
About another 20 minutes after that, one of the kids vacated a swing. When no one rushed to fill it, I started to swing. Higher and higher I pumped. One moment I was in the air, and the next I was on my back, and kids were crying all around me. The top beam of the swing set had broken Into 3 pieces. Luckily, none of these three pieces fell on any of the kids, and everyone was ok. All of the FODI workers rushed out. I said something funny and self humiliating and everyone cracked up. For some reason, after that everyone just loved me. Destroying playground equipment and almost killing children usually has that effect. Plus I got to pick up and coddle more cute, relatively pee free children.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The following story is about one of the more intense things i have ever witnessed…

So the ¨team¨ headed to Santa Elena to give some Charlas (informative talks). A woman from a neighboring town was to give one on improving family dynamics, a dude was to teach the people how to make gardens and compost, and I was to give a nutrition charla…ie why having a garden would be beneficial. We show up, and as usually no one wanted to come to the charla, so we went around town and attempted to drag the people out of their houses. House to house, shack to shack, person to person…until we hit the jackpot. There were like 30 people crammed into this one room shack. Then we entered, and saw an unconscious guy vomiting and moaning in pain. One woman was supporting him and holding his hair back, and another one was rubbing water on his chest and hair.

Turns out, he had drank a cup of Barbasco cocktail. Barbasco is a poisonous root the Shuar use to fish. They toss the root into the water, and all the fish in the area float to the surface. ¨Did he drink it by accident?¨, I asked. Nope, woman problems. So this guy had tried to commit suicide, and I was witnessing the aftermath, and the community trying to save his life. Luckily, this community was the closet indigenous village to Guayzimi, so an ambulance (pickup truck) was only about half an hour away. A doctor came, put in an iv, and induced more vomiting. The guy recovered, thank god. But when he started to regain conscious, he began weaping and moaning, and everyone started yelling at him. ¨Why the hell would you drink fish poison?¨ Luckily, the doctor was the man, and told them that the physical sickness needed treatment first, and that the patient really didn´t need to be yelled at right then. But you just know that he´s going to get harassed by everyone in the village for the rest of his life. I´m guessing they don´t have the best understanding of mental health issues in the indigenous communities, and the implications of an attempted suicide are most likely poorly understood. Combine that with the fact that this is undoubtedly the most eventful thing thing that has happened in a while, and that the only thing to do at night is to sit around and gossip, and the poor guy is never going to live this down…which won´t help his depression.