Saturday, December 31, 2011

South Africa in One Post


Unfortunately, this entry sums up all of my time in Africa, so sorry ahead of time for the sheer length.  Many of these paragraphs are directly from a previous post I wrote for a travel website called worldwinder.com, and to view that entire post you can go to their website under guest blog entries.  There are also some pictures from the area there.  

My time in South Africa has been incredible so far, visually, emotionally, mentally, and even physically.  I don’t know where to start with the sheer wonder of the landscape.  Off the 13 hour plane from New York, after several connections, I felt like I had stepped into Florida.  Palm like trees, ocean breeze, nothing like the Africa advertised on television.  After a sojourn at a nearby hostel playing a game called bitong (not sure if the spelling is right), like bocce ball, and watching cricket, we made out way exploring the area.  As we entered the townships I saw the first signs of visual poverty here.  Shacks with dirt floors, the poignant smell of urine and body odor, kids playing in garbage heaps, garbage and glass cemented into the rocky, dirt paths leading to some of the houses; these sights and smells defined poverty for me.  Though the American advertisements are incomplete- South Africa is one of the most developed and modernized parts of Africa, and although shantytowns exist, most of the area where we are staying has highways, cities, shops, supermarkets, and industrialized infrastructure.  Even stranger is that across the way from the poorest and most dangerous township lies a township lined with standard, government funded housing with pristinely paved roads.  The landscape looks like an old American suburb, except without the white picket fence and smiling families, child in hand.  Dogs lie as guards outside houses as kids run up and down the street as some mothers wash clothes or sit inside with their family watching television.  Amazingly, despite living in almost destitute conditions, almost every house I have visited has had a sound system and television.  Satellites poke out of the shacks’ roofs, and one day I saw a house with cardboard lining the outside wall.  Yet only minutes away by car lies an amazing downtown area with stores lining the streets, and a pristine beach waiting for the feet of tourists and their open checkbooks.

            Our work project here involves studying public health through an NGO called PlettAid, as we follow around home based caregivers and record psychosocial data regarding the patients’ moods before and after our arrival.  Unfortunately recording the patients’ moods can be difficult, especially with the language barrier.  In the townships, the two main languages spoken are Afrikaans and Xhosa, and while some of the people know English, many do not.  Often I find myself entering a home and feeling like an intruder because I am unable to communicate with that person- other than a simple hello and goodbye I know little of either language, and the clicks in Xhosa especially make it different than other dialects.  So every day we report to one of the clinics depending on where the patients live, but everyone was assigned a different clinic, so while I am with some of the people in the group, others work at different clinics.  We wait there every morning as residents file in and sit down, usually pretty full during the week, and as our caregivers arrive we either visit patients at their homes or go to another clinic with a patient using van transport.  Here are some anecdotes that I hope shed light on the biggest learning moments of my time in South Africa thus far. 

            The walls of my clinic are lined with signs and promotions regarding HIV/AIDS- free condom signs, family support organizations, and responsibilities and rights of the patients jump out from the white painted walls.  People fill the waiting area to see the sole Sister in the clinic.  On one of my first home visits, a talkative man asked me about America and where I lived.  What struck me was how he talked as if all of America were rich, and if all of the country looked as it did on television.  I assured it didn’t, and it made me think that when I first came to Africa I thought of the moving images of impoverished children clothes in rags peering at me through the screen.  But all of Africa is completely different- within each country, and within each region even city the landscape changes.  Shack towns to standardized, white government housing to supermarkets and tourist filled beaches.  Just like the US, all of Africa does not resemble television commercials. 

            Another huge part of the experience here involves immediate signs of both globalization and westernization.  From American Dracula movies to huge sound systems to blaring Rihanna pop music, I have found that even halfway around the world I can’t escape American culture.  Nike sweatpants, Hong Kong tee shirts, even a Washington D.C. sweatshirt that one of the caregivers wore.  I saw a man with an Eminem hat, Lil Wayne blazoned across a man’s wall outside his house, signs lie everywhere.  Inside one patient’s house, an older woman with high blood pressure, a poster of the pop star Jennifer Lopez resides right over her bed, and in that same visit I heard Pink Panther music from the South African radio frequency.  One of the most striking and stunning forms of globalization, and especially the world influence of corporations is the Coca Cola logos paraded next to the store names.  Little food stores and barbershops litter the townships, and many of the food stores have their names flaunted next to the global Coca Cola logo.  My caregiver explained to me that they pay less to have their signs made by the Coca Cola Company, so as they advertise their store name to township families Coca Cola reaches its arm further across the world.

            One of my most poignant and shocking experiences of the public health aspect of the trip here involves my proximity to HIV and TB patients.  We visited an AIDS patient who weighed about 26 kg, or about 70-80 pounds.  As I helped to lift her from the wheelchair into the van to see the Sister at another clinic, I felt every bone in her chest and the shaking of her breath with the pain and discomfort.  At only 39 years old, she lived off ARV treatment and looked as if she were in the final stages of the disease.  Incredibly weak, swelling in her chest, legs and arms as skinny as twigs, she looked at least twice her age.  I learned that they discovered the disease late, and that her CD4 count was already low when she began ARV treatment.  The second time we saw her she looked worse.  Her stomach swelled with a fluid, and as we took her to the clinic to drain off the more than 2L of fluid, she started to fade.  At first I thought she felt tired, but the Sister and nurses called the ambulance to bring her to the hospital.  Another lady in the room could barely speak from a stroke, and threw up right next to me.  In the next bed, a young couple sat next to their young son with epilepsy.  A few days later I found out from my caregiver that the AIDS patient had passed away in the hospital.  I didn’t cry, I didn’t feel sad or depressed, just a bit shocked.  I didn’t know her that well, and couldn’t talk to her, only lift her into the van and accompany her in the hospital.  HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death in South Africa.  Because her cause of death was HIV and TB, she must wait longer and pay more for her funeral policy.  Normal deaths involve a waiting period of six months while a TB or HIV related death involves a 1-2 year waiting period.  Openness and testing are highly encouraged, yet phrases like “do you eat sweets with the paper on?” referring to condom use perpetuate detrimental decisions.

            My reaction to her passing scared me a bit because I did not feel shocked.  Looking forward on these experiences I thought that I would be hit very hard, crying after work or feeling depressed.  Each day brought mental exhaustion and emotional drain, but I did not cry over the patient’s death.  Many of the township stories and experiences I heard sounded and looked so abstract to me, so foreign, that I struggled to grasp their reality.  I felt worse that I did not cry over her death, that I did not feel particularly sad, and after I brought that up in one of our group processing meetings I saw that others felt very moved by certain experiences.  It felt wrong, my seemingly indifferent outlook, but now I see that everyone processes these experiences differently.  With such an abstract and surreal experience, there’s no right way to feel or react, even if I think there is.    
 
            The public health system here involves aspects incredibly helpful and affordable to the people.  Home-based care is provided free to the people, along with visits to the clinic and medication such as antibiotics or ARVs.  Despite effective parts, there also exist complexities and weak points.  One of the controversial ways to support the patients is a disability grant, money given for healthy living and supporting oneself and their family if needed.  Yet underlying addictions in townships such as alcohol and cigarettes lead some to abuse the disability grant to buy alcohol, leading some to intentionally grow sicker in order to receive the grant.  When one becomes well they need to find a job to support themselves, but the scarcity makes finding a job difficult.  And the cycle continues.  My media project involves the reasons and factors behind one’s making detrimental decisions to his health.  Unlike my assumptions on arrival, laziness and ignorance play almost no role.

            Though the main part of town remains relatively safe during the day, a recent event in one of the townships changed many of our perceptions of their actual safety.  One night a man raped a seven year old girl, murdered her, and proceeded to show a neighbor the grave.  The town responded in a mob, beating the man and burning him to death instead of leaving him to the faults of the justice system.  One of the patients mentioned that the man had offended two previous times, the first for five years prison time and the second for fifteen years prison time.  The patient believed that the man deserved his death, and that killing him was just, elaborating that murderers should be killed, rapists should have their genitals cut off, and thieves should have their hands cut off.  They also continued that walking around at night one could encounter drug addicts on the street looking for a fix or get robbed.  He blamed these criminals for racial distrust, and that the racial distrust makes it even more difficult to find jobs. 

            December 1st was world AIDS Day, so as part of our project to raise awareness during the two-week party called Plett Rage, we pitched a tent on the beach to attract people to our activity.  Due to rain we conducted the activity the next day, including a bit of education on condom use through a race to put condoms on cucumbers.  Though a humorous activity, we tried to remind many of the intoxicated partiers who do not know much about the danger of HIV/AIDS in South Africa to use condoms as an easy way to prevent infection.  Changing mindset and consciousness is incredibly difficult in such a short exercise, but I hope we at least made some people think about the issue for at least the day.  Many of the beachgoers, to our astonishment, did not know much about the HIV epidemic raging right in their backyard.  I struggled with not feeling patronizing informing them of an issue in their own country, especially as a foreigner.  Before this trip, I didn’t even know there was a difference between HIV and AIDS. But it affects everyone from children to parents, and if no one knows about it or talks about it, then no one will be open about their contracting it.  As part of the patients’ rights, a patient with HIV has the right to keep secret their status.  In the US, I feel that the use of condoms is advertised as a way to prevent pregnancy primarily, but many leave out that condoms also prevent HIV infection.  Being able to talk about HIV at the dinner table eliminates the stigma and tension around the disease.  If no one knows, no one can help.

            Despite continuing hardships that some South Africans face everyday, the joy and happiness I saw every day amazed me.  Kids playing in the dirt with little food and broken down houses still smiled and laughed like any other child, and as I entered the houses the families would smile and greet me warmly.  Talking with one of the Sisters at the clinic, she told us that whenever she leaves she always yearns to come back, and that despite the medical difficulties, she loves the character of the people.  She felt that most of the people she saw living in the townships appeared much happier than those living in the more developed city area of Plett.  I felt that especially the African women, the mothers, had such pride and responsibility in the household, many of them taking care of the entire family and siblings on their own.  I admire their strength.   

Being in South Africa for the holiday season, we have experienced two major American holidays here, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We spent Thanksgiving at Rocky Road, the hostel we sojourned at intermittently during the trip.  Our homestay mother Steph also prepared a great meal, but the willingness to accommodate a holiday they don’t celebrate astounded me, and the meal at Rocky Road was one of my best Thanksgiving dinners.  Soft atmosphere, a nice fire, such a personal and relaxing atmosphere.  Due to the feeling of family here in the group and with the people we’ve met, I’ve hardly felt homesick the entire trip.  The food has been excellent, with the highlight being the number of braais we have had.  The braai is basically a barbecue, and the family we stayed with loved it, so many times we would have a braai with our host brothers and host mom.  I felt amazed that she handed us the house so happily, and she treated us more as friends than guests in her house.  The amount of people that she knew in town, the kids that felt so comfortable talking with her and staying over for the night, astounded me.  She really is Plett’s mom.

Our Christmas week we spent doing safari activities with an organization called CrissCross Adventures in Addo.  A young couple led us on amazing activities that week including visits to a raptor and reptile center, cheetah center, Addo Elephant National Park, and a river safari.  I let some snakes wrap around my neck, and hold them, as I learned that snakes are very misunderstood, and many are not aggressive.  Good to learn as I let one slither around my windpipe.  We saw a crocodile, very aggressive animal, an ostrich, even a goat ramming its head repeatedly against the fence.  We got to pet lion cubs and even a cheetah, along with seeing some sirvals, which reminded me of Egypt a lot and the jackals alongside mummies.  The cats were so majestic, and I can see now why Egyptians saw them as royalty.  Yesterday we went out on the river in canoes for a little river safari, learning about different plants and how ancient the land is.  Our tour guide Chris found a huge elephant tusk up on the bank of the river, and he told us that most likely it aged back to the days of ivory hunters.  Our funny guide Moses told us about his life growing up as a kid in the Xhosa culture, stealing honey from bees nests by burning a plant, sticking a plant in a termite hole to get them stuck to fry and eat as protein, even run 6 km to school then grab a branch with which to brush his teeth.  We tried the aloe vera plant, which tasted horrible, and even smelled a potent mint leaf.  The spearfishing and other hunting stories of the Xhosa bushmen amazed me, that everything they needed they could find in the bush.  My favorite day with CrissCross was our safari day in the National Park.  We drove through in a fish tank or pope mobile, as Moses called it, where we could see the animals out the huge windows.  We saw a rhino, ostriches, bunches of elephants, warthogs, jackals, kuddu, elands, and even a lion at the very end of our tour.  At one watering hole, we saw maybe thirty or more elephants sliding into the water to bathe and drink, some even coming close to the van.  Little warthog babies ran next to their mother, and we saw the most interesting ostrich mating ceremony.  The male sat on the ground, swaying its feathers back and forth in order to impress the female, and once they started mating it looked like a dance.  A strange site to see, but very intriguing to watch.

For IST, the whole group went to Cape Town.  The city was huge and bustling, and one night some went out to the clubs on the main street, even after we had already gone out multiple times during Plett Rage.  The amount of activities Cape Town offered was immense, so we had to pick and choose.  Hope and I couldn’t get tickets to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held, but we still climbed Table Mountain, visited the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Point, Boulders’ penguin colony, Chapman’s Peak, and a seal colony off Hout Bay.  Table Mountain was one of my favorite activities, which involved a mere hour and a half to summit but offered great views of the city, ocean, and another hike called Devil’s Peak.  Recently named one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World, Table Mountain is available to everyone to climb by cable car, and because of time we took it down.  I felt mixed about the cable car; I feel that a Wonder of the World should be harder to see, to make it more fulfilling to reach that summit, but doing so would leave many without the opportunity to see it.  Our bus day tour hit many of the big attractions near Cape Town, and we hiked and biked through the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Point, the southern most tip of Africa.  Practically surrounded by water, I liked the endless blue save the numerous tourists seeing it with me.  With so many people it felt pretty crowded.  Seeing the penguins on the beach was cool too, especially because I wouldn’t think to see penguins on a beach at all.  Hope and I both enjoyed the market type shops too, being able to bargain and look at all the crafts people offered.  Thankfully the atmosphere was not as overwhelming as the Otavalo adventure.                                     

As far as other fun activities, earlier in the trip some of us went skydiving and bungee jumping.  I did both, and the surreal nature of the jumps was awesome.  With coastline and beach hikes scattered throughout our work project, we have experienced many sides of South Africa.  Whether a seal colony basking in the sun, bright flowers spotted on a hillside, or dogs sitting in dirt with ticks invading their faces, little children playing soccer on a dirt field, and garbage fires.  Yet throughout all the hardship, the people remain energetic, loud and lively, with the woman especially exuding an air of supreme confidence and pride, which I envy.  Through the work of PlettAid and caregivers, change is happening here in South Africa.   


Friday, November 11, 2011

End of Atahualpa to Tena to Cusco Up A Peruvian Wonder of the World


Well it has been a while- my last entry was right before we left for Tena- Mijal, Arden, Julia and I left on a super early bus, around 6 to start an approximately seven hour venture on public buses to Tena, which lies near the jungle very close to sea level.  After a weird scary movie called Vertigo and lots of random stories to entertain ourselves, we arrived to get situated in our hostel.  We took a wooden canoe across this little river to a kind of zoo, a shelter persay for certain animals.  We saw a tapir, monkey, capibara, turtles, a massive tree and even a tree with cinnamon leaves.  The tree we saw was over 100 years old!  As it grew, it grew down into the ground and then grew out until its death, so that the tree was symmetrical upside down.  The amount of species and biodiversity in the region is unreal- the baby monkeys scrambling around in tree branches especially entertained and touched us all.  We saw the other kids from EIL as we stripped into bathing suits and played in the river. 

The next day was our last day, really, because of the long travel time.  We managed to find a package deal for only 60 dollars- rafting in the morning, jungle tour in the afternoon, followed by a night in an indigenous home.  The White water rafting was one of my highlights that weekend- I didn’t know what to expect really, and as I realized that we did not actually sit in the raft I began to worry a bit.  So we have to sit on the side of this raft as we paddle and make sure to stay in the boat when the white water carries us into the rocks?  I started to think about falling out when we learned the proper body position should we fall out of the raft- on our back, knees bent so we don’t ram into rocks as hard.  Nice.  Sure enough, I fell out the first rapid, called the butterfly rapid- freakn embarrassing.  Luckily there were two German guys with us too, and one fell out with me so it wasn’t too bad.  None of us fell out for all the next rapids, over about two hours.  It was a lot more fun in the front-as my dad says, “the view from the back never changes”.  It’s very true.  We passed some native people, cleaning some metals in the river and looking for more, bathing, washing clothes, or some kids playing in the rapids with old tires.  It made me think how much the river meant to these people, going back to the title of one of the group’s media project titles- Water is Life.  I think they realize the importance of water more than I do.  We stopped towards the end of our trip on the river to jump off a 6 meter bridge- it looked rickety.  I saw each plank bend under the weight of a car passing by and also wondered how deep the water was where we would land.  Our guide assured us that as long as we ben tour knees as we hit the water we could be fine.  Great- so I hesitated a bit as I climbed up onto the metal railing but it wasn’t bad.  Barely hit the bottom on impact.  Even better was that all these locals on the shore watched us, most of the kids naked too.  They looked pretty excited to see foreigners, but they probably see many other rafting groups along those rapids. 

On our jungle tour, our guide found a plant called achiote whose seeds gave a deep red natural dye, used in some of the indigenous tribes to dye their hair red.  So we got some neat face paint, although in the sweltering heat and humidity I sweated it right off.  Our guide led us up onto this ridgeline overlooking the jungle, and we got to look out across the expanse of trees and clouds.  We continued past an elastic tree, where once sliced under the bark, the tree would ooze a black liquid, then hardening to form rubber, a natural elastic.  Pretty awesome the amount of resources found in the jungle- it seemed like every other plant could be used to alleviate an ailment- stomach problems, coughing, sore throat; everything the people in the indigenous villages could need came right from the jungle.  I can now see why they are so angered by petroleum companies’ taking their jungle- the jungle is their way of life.  We passed by a natural waterfall pool for a quick dip and a water massage.  So cool- literally everything is in the jungle!

The place we stayed at for the night was not really an indigenous village- a father and his son lived there, but were not what I thought of when I heard “indigenous”.  That night a shaman visited the house to go through a cleansing ritual with the girls in the group.  He uttered incantations as he shook a leaf around their body, shaking away the evil spirits.  It was quite the ritual to watch, and we payed for only a small sample.  Usually the rituals the shamans conduct are much longer and more grandiose.  It was a very neat side to see of the Ecuadorian culture, and we experienced only a tiny bit of the real culture.  The next day we ate there and rode in the back of a pickup in order to get back to Tena, catching the bus back to Atahualpa and meeting with everyone else. 

Seeing everyone felt a bit strange at first- I got used to the small group and all of a sudden I felt surrounded by smiles and stories and talking.  Bit overwhelming- it took me a few days to become accustomed to the big group again.                               

We left Atahualpa forever, hopefully not, but I’ll see.  My host brother gifted me a beautiful wood recorder and pictures, and everyone asked me to come back sometime in the future.  It was a hard question to answer- I wanted to say yes but I have no idea where I will be in one, five, ten years, so I answered a vague “I hope so”.  The families of Atahualpa voiced that their doors will always be open should we return- their hospitality is unbelievable. I felt odd accepting the gorgeous recorder as a gift, but the effort made to remember Atahualpa was astounding, so David must have really wanted me to have it.  I tried to play it unsuccessfully, but have since learned “hot cross buns”.  Working on it. 

My last night in Atahualpa was pretty unforgettable.  The whole town practically showed up to see our media presentations; except the funny part was that they arrived about a half hour later than the scheduled time.  Very relaxed in Atahualpa as far as getting places on time.  We all presented, a local pan flute and guitar band performed as we danced, tons of food was passed around, including a traditional colada morada, a rich dessert drink made of berry.  We all sat and talked with our families, and each of us, including the leaders, received certificates/graduation recognition from the parroquia of Atahualpa.  Later as the food dwindled, we had a huge dance party to electronic music.  My host brother said I could be a professional, which flattered me.  I am not quite the professional grade dancer.  We watched 10,000 BC as a family before all going to bed.          

The last morning before leaving, I made sure to get some family pictures on the roof- at first I was worried because I did not think my host dad would make it back from Quito in time, but luckily he came back the night before.  Worrying about not saying a proper goodbye or getting a picture reminded me how much they meant to me.  David went off to school, my host Dad to Quito for treatment, and my host mom still there with me as I stuffed all my belongings in my backpack.  I ran down to pick up my pants, getting mended for a hole, but the store was closed.  I hated that- making everyone know that I left something, being the limiting factor in the group.  But more than that was the town’s reaction to my problem.  Two women from the store next to the one with my pants immediately pulled out cell phones and called her house, offering to get a car to run down, practically mobilizing the town to get my pants back.  They suggested sending them to Quito to pick up, everything; eventually the storeowner ran up from her house down the hill to give me the pants.  At that point I felt so bad for making everyone run around for me I was ready to get another pair of pants- but the happiness and willingness to get me those pants stunned me- they were worth about four dollars.

We returned to Quito for a day, back to the mission from before.  We had a cool bowling night with the Ecuador semester group, cosmic bowling in the Quicentro mall.  Really fun to be with some of the other kids going through a similar experience- they studied public health in Ecuador instead of environment, and we got to see their media projects too.  Modern vs. Traditional medicine focused, and it was interesting to see how many plants could assuage a cold, or stomach problems, or other minor symptoms.  The next day we were free to walk around the city before evaluations and a night city tour, where we got to see La Garda, a statue of the Virgin of Quito overlooking the city.  Pretty spectacular at night with the soft purple aura around it.  After our last meals at the mission and a really early wake up on Halloween, we navigated the airport and took a flight to Cusco.  We got a lot of strange looks- not every day the Ecuadorian sees a hippie jester, batman, zombie, reindeer, or bumblebee walking through an airport. 

After climbing Machu Picchu and about to be off to South Africa, I have much more to write about.  Unfortunately, the internet in South Africa is speculative at best, so it will be difficult to post any pictures.  I’ll see what I can do.  All I can say is that we’ll be in a lot of airports. 

Cusco was a lot like Otavalo- big market scene and a ton of opportunity for shopping.  We took a roundabout way to land- big banking turn into a skinny valley for a long runway- funnily enough, there were some seats lined along the sides of the runway should locals want to watch the planes land.  The city is pretty big- some market like setups but mostly streets lined with stores, and multiple squares mixed into the normal city block style.  It was a relaxing few days before Machu Picchu- cafes, shopping, and Alpaca craze set in, along with a lot of holiday shopping too.  I still had some bouts of buyer’s remorse, but I think after initially regretting some purchases, now that I realize I might not ever be back in Cusco, I do not feel as bad.  Although the need to stuff my big backpack and have two carry ons made me think a little bit about the reality of having all that stuff.  And of course whether or not I would actually use those items- I keep struggling with the idea of buying new items, especially clothing, and how easy it is to justify any action I make.  Either it’s “I’m supporting the economy”, or “it’s a better form of consumerism in a market…at least they get all the profit”, or “you’ll never be in Cusco again.”  At the end of the day, I still needed to leave a whole backpack of Ecuadorian and Peru clothing with Andrea in NY.  I still don’t know if I am happy with my choices, but I’m leaning yes. 

We did find some amazing stores in Cusco- one in particular with a Native American man selling great quality leather- expensive, but in my eyes worth it.  My friend Chris bought a gorgeous hand painted drum with the three spirit animals painted on- the condor, the puma, and the snake.  The condor represents peace, the puma represents energy, while the snake represents intelligence.  It’s fascinating the meaning behind these symbols.  These red and black seeds used for bracelets and necklaces represent protection—also the stone turquoise represents creativity and mental health.  The owner was very animated and proud of his work, happy to explain to us the greater meaning behind his work. 

The most common way Hope and I spent most of our time in Cusco was looking at art.  Yet we did not look at art in galleries or stores, just peering over the shoulders of young, walking artists in the squares.  The artists carried with them their entire portfolios- paintings with oil, charcoal, or watercolor on paper or even felt for better transportation.  After the first day when an artist stopped us in the square, we seemed like targets for all the artists.  We spent at least over an hour looking through vibrant shaman faces, the Indian in the mountain of Machu Picchu, spirit animals, or the Peruvian ladies’ hats and dangling braids of midnight black hair.  Fascinating and incredibly detailed work, requiring days of toil- almost all of the work shown was by the student, maybe one or two by their instructor, and the artists we saw were all still in art school.  Most of the themes shown were the same, but each had a slightly different style or preferred medium, and spending all the time looking and arguing down a price seemed a bit annoying at the time, but getting to know the artist behind the work felt rewarding.  I don’t think I would’ve got that experience at a gallery- plus the pieces in the street were far less expensive.  Bargaining the price of a gorgeous piece of artwork down made me feel degrading almost- I ended up buying one beautiful piece a bit overprice, but stood outside this restaurant while my lunch got cold trying to be reasonable with the man.  Hope explained it pretty well- I did not want to cheat him for a price too low, but in a way a price too high cheated me.  A delicate process. 

Machu Picchu hike began.  Much like other hikes, well some, Machu Picchu has a train option to get to the top; we took the longer, four day trek on foot.  Yet we did not have to carry any of our necessities, save clothes, toiletries, etc- we had a team of 18 porters carry everything from chairs to tables to food and water for us up the mountain.  These literal mountain men astounded me- I thought carrying a 50 pound comfy pack was hard- these guys literally tied tarps together with rope, threw a few tarp straps on, and powered up the trail in sandals.  Some wore shoes, some sandals—some had better packs too, but almost all of the packs I saw had no sturdy, comfortable waist belt.  The waist belt is the most important part of a pack really, especially a heavy one, because it transfers most of the weight from the shoulders to the hips.  I felt pretty pathetic standing in a stretching circle about to shoulder my cushy, 20ish lb pack as the porters saddled up 50 lb behemoths in sandals.  Not only would all the weight be on these guys’ shoulders, but they would practically run up the trail, especially downhills.  Every day by the time we got to camp, the tents were set up, food being prepared, no sweat for us at all.  Plus they would clap upon our entry- too bad we weren’t there first to clap for them, they deserved it most.  On top of the porters, our two formal guides were aptly named Socrates and Jesus.  They introduced us to plants and gave insight into the Incan culture as we hiked—what better leaders to follow up to Machu Picchu than Socrates and Jesus.

On top of physical demands, the trip did not demand very much preparation.  The porters provided all meals and even hand and feet washing buckets for us, as well as bathrooms at every camp site and the rest points along the way.  The bathrooms did not have seats or provided toilet paper, just a hole with some for grips for the natural squat position.  Uncannily comfy really- once I got used to it.  They even had trash barrels for the used toilet paper.  Our meals were incredibly luscious- pancakes, rice, meat, vegetables, even flaming banana with alcohol.  Popcorn, tea four times a day, once each meal and a five o’clock tea time- the quantity of food was incredible for a hiking trip.  It made the hiking part that much easier. 

Over four days, we covered a little over 40 km, up and down hill about evenly.  Our second day was the most challenging- seemingly endless stairs up, and seemingly endless stairs up.  Wind and rain pummeled us for the duration of the day, and drying our clothes in the tent worked to a point- even my Gore Tex 3L jacket was absolutely soaked, either to sweat or water, or most likely both.  I was not pleased.  Luckily after day 2 the weather cleared for our long day three- for our early five wake up the porters not only woke us up, but also brought us coca tea.  The leaves are most potent chewed, causing more energy and less need to eat or drink.  A lot of the porters used the coca leaves on the trail, occasionally stopping on uphills to change leaves.  I tried it one day but didn’t feel much effect, though I could have used too few leaves.  Interestingly, one break spot I saw one of the porters intentionally spill his drink, a sort of murky looking drink I thought was chicha.  I later learned that in the Inca culture, they frequently offered the first sip of their drink to Pachamama, or Mother Nature.  One lunch break we made sure to give Her some of our orange juice for good luck with the weather. 

Our last day hiking up to Machu Picchu we had a very early wake up, about 3, in order to make a checkpoint before 5:30- there were many other groups on the trail, and all the groups needed to make it through the checkpoint in order to continue to Machu Picchu.  At al the check points we could receive stamps in our passports, evidence of our trek- six all together, with the most awe inspiring stamp of course at the gates of Machu Picchu.  After a stimulating conversation regarding religion, psychology, and the death penalty, we made it to the sun gate.  Strange how my mind wanders during a hike.  Unfortunately the clouds hid our first view of Machu Picchu for a few minutes, but once it cleared all the cameras came out.  I felt that as many pictures I took of the view, I cold never get enough.  Every few seconds down the trail a better view emerged, better light, better clouds.  Yet at the top of the Sun Gate I could not help but feel oddly unsatisfied.  It wasn’t the view, or the fact that I just walked to one of the new 7 Wonders of the World- it was me.  I kept thinking that it would’ve been better if I had worked harder, or if there weren’t as many people there, or that no matter how long I gazed upon that site I knew it would not be enough.  I thought how I could not be like the Huoruani tribe; I knew the beautiful moment had to come to an end.  One quotation that Conner told me stuck, although this might not be phrased correctly, “Don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that you’re there.”  The quotation intertwines wonderfully with my goal of staying in the moment, a goal at that moment I did not fulfill.  I escaped my snit little by little as the tour progressed, but I still felt tired in all the beauty.  Tourist groups walked by, security guards stationed around the site to guide traffic and beep at the walking on the grass or taking jumping pictures, which I found out first hand.  The face in the mountain looks much stronger in pictures and paintings, but gazing at the site I did recognize the face.  Words can’t describe the awe of Machu Picchu, or the brilliance of the Inca culture.  The Incas had a compass rock, facing almost perfectly in all four directions, a rock to determine the solstices and equinoxes depending on shadow, and most importantly their most important symbol, called the chacana, or Andean cross.  The symbol embodies their entire culture- the spirit animals, levels of life, numbers, even the seasons, geography, four parts of the year, everything.  Their way of life can be interpreted from that sole symbol.  The architecture of the site was also unbelievable- water canals, structures stronger than our current houses- their rock walls appeared rudimentary, but inside all the rocks had grooves, making them fit together like puzzle pieces.  Instead of just flat rocks, the grooves strengthened the wall exponentially- brilliant.  All the water flowed underground, or above, into certain pools, like little fountains.  Everything revolved around nature and the Earth. 

A few aspects of Machu Picchu disappointed me, mainly the tourist aspect of the site itself.  American food at the bottom, one of the most expensive hotels in the area near the base, and overall a commercialization of the area.  But without that commercialization, my visit to Machu Picchu would not have been possible.  Still, all those people and the American, tourist touch to that Incan site takes away from its beauty- everywhere so far I’ve seen American aspects and highlights, for better or for worse; all the while it makes me feel strange.  The idea in globalization that despite travelling, you can never leave home.  The Incas never said goodbye in their culture, only “see you later”.  So until my next South Africa entry, as the Incas say, spelling probably a bit off, “Tupananchiscama”.                                      


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Atahualpa Cultural tid bits


This week a lot of cultural aspects of Atahualpa hit me in a way I had not before recognized, partly spurred by seminars and partly by host family meal conversation.  One bit about Otavalo I forgot to mention was the presence of beggars in the market- many would hold out their hats or bowls for money, and one even blocked my walking path in an attempt for some coins.  I felt awful not giving them anything, but when Mijal offered one woman part of her fruit, she denied.  How can you ask for money but not accept food? 

Education here in Atahualpa runs the same as in the States, except their days are much shorter.  My average school day at home would go from 8:30 until about 3:30, whereas days here go from 7:50 to about 1:30.  Almost all half days.  Even more interesting was one of the textbooks that my host brother was studying- on top of biology, chemistry, and physics he is also taking a class called Vademecum, which includes a textbook full of medicines and pills for different ailments.  I was astonished- such a practical subject taught in high school, yet I never would have thought to even ask to have that in school before now.  It makes complete sense. 

Over one lunch time question about family here in Atahualpa, my host mom explained that all of her sisters live in Atahualpa, and all of her children live nearby in Quito.  Her niece also lives in Atahualpa, so almost all of her family is very close, within driving distance.  I felt a bit odd responding that my family is very spread out, some in New Jersey, New York, Florida, and that I visit them only on holidays, and visit some by plane because they live so far away.  Family and people mean everything here.  Food plays a big role in the town too- all of the food is grown in or around the town, and some is delivered from Quito, but my host mom knows the origin of almost all of their food.  Other than maybe Coca Cola, everything is local.  I had a hard time thinking that I buy my food from a supermarket, which probably takes countless stops around the world or by plane or bus to get to those shelves.  I know where several items of food come from, but do I know how they are grown?  Chemicals used?  Antibiotics in meat?  I have no idea- all I have is that plastic packaging. 

The work project has been going very well- recently we have been working on constructing viveros, or greenhouses, for the planting of both medicinal plants and trees for possible reforestation of Atahualpa.  Deforestation of palm trees affects the area, so if Atahualpa can successfully plant palms, they can sell the trees to Quito.  We take wood and bamboo strands, cut them into table supports, nail three wood sheets as the top, dig some holes in the dirt and finally nail the top down into the supports.  The tables are not exceedingly strong- a bit wobbly, but for plant work they work fine.  It is really quite amazing that we have built these greenhouses- most of the planning has been done by the Atahualpa locals, but the accomplishment of making a workable table out of wood from their backyard astounds me.  Before now, my first thought would have been, “well, I can find a plastic greenhouse”, or “maybe I’ll find a construction worker to help.”  A little cutting and hammering and soon enough tables lined the home-constructed greenhouse. 

Between media project and seminars, my mind feels at times like silly putty.  Every new idea, every new challenge crushes my head and remolds it a bit stronger.  But the process is never ending, and this is only the first core country.  Our media project took us into the depths of ecotourism, with questions ranging from simply “What is ecotourism” to “Why does ecotourism matter, and to whom?”  During one session where we had to come up with our narrative, our driving idea, I had to pace around and moan and groan to come up with these ideas.  Such basic but complex ideas, where I didn’t know the destination but had to get there.  Ambling and stumbling through ideas that twisted my brain to the point of annihilation, I think we finally came to a consensus.  The hardest part about the media project includes that it changes/challenges my assumptions, and there is no right answer.  No leader can say if we have reached the end because there is no end.  We know there is a beginning, but we have to keep going deeper, simpler but more probing.  The media project, unlike any other project I have done, is not a book report.  Another seminar about gender roles and he environment reminded me how strong gender roles are.  They’re just like advertisements- there are so many examples we don’t even notice them anymore.

Today in work project we got to work with Atahualpa’s upcoming generation, classes of students between the ages of about 6 or 7 to 10 or 11.  Fairly little kids, and we presented to them a short presentation about TBB, their nature, and the nature rights in Ecuador’s constitution.  Ecuador is the only country in the world with nature rights in its constitution!  We interacted with the kids, asked them to draw their favorite aspects of nature, taught them some English nature words, and finally made them repeat a promise to take care of their nature.  What did I learn when I was their age?  The first environmental science class I took was in 11th grade- these kids live in a sanction of nature, and they already understand partly why they should protect it.  Looking at them and hearing their answers- don’t burn the forest, throw trash in the cans, don’t cut down trees, protect species from extinction, made me wonder how many of these things I know but ignore or detach myself from.  In one seminar we touched on how despite being modernized, we now deplete our resources and make a bigger negative impact than ever before.  Even worse, I feel as though we distance ourselves from nature, so all of the issues are out of sight and out of mind.  I thought about how walking through a mall I never think about the petroleum that goes into plastic, or how all of those bottles might end up sitting in landfill for years.  I guess that is what TBB is about- bringing us closer to these issues.  Slowly I am starting to think more about these issues, slowly I am realizing that just recycling or reusing or reducing might not work long term.  Slowly I start to learn that saving the world, saving the environment is no simple task.             

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Atahualpa Nearing the End

My time in Atahualpa is coming to a close- about a week left here, and three days if those I will be in Tena for Independent Student Travel, or travel away from the leaders.  It should be great, but I am starting to look back on my time here and think about how I will miss the atmosphere.  Here are some of my latest adventures.

Last weekend we took a trip to Otavalo, a touristy market area about 4 ish hours away from Atahualpa by bus.  We did a lot, but one of the highlights was visiting a huge craft market on Saturday morning.  Apparently the craft market is one of the biggest in South America, and we arrived early in the morning to see rows and rows, blocks and blocks of stalls and shops lined up.  Vendors yelling up the walks, the bustle of people, and store owners negotiating with customers screamed through my brain.  I could barely think through all the peripheral debris- we had to walk from the center down all of the individual walks before we could even think about buying anything.  Cloth pants and shirts, alpaca jackets, tapestries, bracelets, necklaces, I did not even know where to start.  I ended up buying pants and a few jackets, plus a bowl as a gift for my host family and some other items.  But what I bought did not really matter- the more intriguing experience was interacting with the stall owners.  In the market, it is customary and almost courteous to negotiate a price with the owner.  Almost all of the items I looked at were made by hand, the materials collected or bought by the owner, so I felt bad negotiating down a product that was made by hand.  The backpack I bought was about thirteen dollars, but the materials were collected up in the mountains, painstakingly by hand, and then hand sewn to make the backpack.  13 dollars.  But still I continued to try an lower prices at every stall- a girl in my shopping group named Mijal mentioned that they would not sell the item if they did not profit, so I felt a bit better.  We spent about four hours walking around the market, and after I left with my items I still did not feel satisfied.  I felt strange- mad at myself for splurging on items that I wanted, but did not really have time to assess and make sure it was a product I would love.  The market was so huge that I knew there was another item there I missed or overlooked, an item I knew I would love more than the one I bought.  I felt slightly consoled that profits went directly to the stall owner, but still had a huge bout of buyer's remorse yet buyer's hunger, I guess.  Yet going back to the owners, rarely have I talked to someone about their product.  I learned that making some necklaces requires a lot of drying time and effort, and that the makers are very willing to talk about their products and how they are made.  Interestingly, one bracelet maker was wary of our taking pictures of his collection for fear of reproducing the same bracelets for vending.  The vendors exuded happiness and friendliness, amazingly courteous to us, even agreeing to teach some of the girls how to make similar bracelets to those they were selling.  I never really had that kind of experience with any of my previous consumer experiences.  Even stranger was that many other foreigners were in the market, Americans and Europeans.  I saw many older Americans snapping pictures, taking videos of a lot of vendors without even asking the slightest courtesy.  I saw an American couple trying to negotiate and talk with a vendor in English, which struck me as almost rude.  It was an odd feeling, seeing other Americans in that market.

Later that day, after lunch, all of the guys in the group, 4, went to a Condor park where some of the condors and other birds such as owls and eagles are kept.  All of the birds were kept in cages, and in some places with signs for the birds, no birds really stayed.  The park was semi under construction or addition of other cages, but the birds we saw were fascinating.  The faces on some of the owls looked like warped pieces of wood, and when we passed they stayed dead still.  The condors though were massive- their wingspan must have been about 8-10 feet, and when they flew they needed huge flaps of their wings to stay aloft.  Towards the end of the visit, we got to see a free flight of some of the smaller birds; the birds were trained, and they easily walked, flew, and snagged meat around us without any danger.  I got to hold one, with a glove on, and comically brought my face closer to the bird to examine it.  I did not realize it at the time; luckily nothing happened.  Seeing the birds in cages felt strange- one even had a mask over its eyes, probably so it would not panic at the sight of visitors.  I tried to really look at them, more than a casual glance at its claws or wings, really try and imagine how they live.  Being in a cage, they probably couldn't show me much about their way of life.

That night, we went to an even more interesting cultural event in Ecuador- a rooster fight.  Many aspects of the fight struck me, but even more was the atmosphere in the ring.  Literally a ring with feathers everywhere, beers passed out like tickets for a sports match, cages surrounding the area above the ring, all filled with roosters bred to fight.  Very odd to watch- I did not see a single woman there, besides the girls in our group, and a lot of the men bet.  We had to pay a dollar to enter, and we saw one fight.  I was pleasantly surprised that there was no blood or death, but the men would intentionally hold the roosters next to each other to rile them up, to snap their beaks and encourage anger before the match.  They would handle the roosters like toys- after flapping and snapping and biting out feathers, the men would snatch up their rooster, lick its feathers, suck out the feathers from its mouth, and give it a nice pat before shoving it back in the ring.  I did not figure out the system for points or how one rooster wins, but eventually the aggression died down and the roosters sort of layed on each other.  We only stayed for one match, and watching became quite repetitive after the first few minutes of the ten minute match.  Though I am sure betting and yelling and beer add to the excitement of the experience.

After game nights and food outings and an amazing pie shop, two other activities stood out for me in Otavalo.  One was an Ecuadorian bar/night club.  Having a guy in the group for such an outing is essential, and despite my somewhat frail figure, I played the role of bodyguard for four girls in this bar with excess smoke, beer, and guys.  Quite the role to play- I basically gave mean looks and danced around the girls to deter any Ecuadorian guys from them.  Even more interesting was that the party was actually a birthday party- being obviously foreign, I do not know how the man at the door let us in without any questions, while he shoved others away and even patted some down.  We stayed there for about two hours, constantly dancing while under practical surveillance by everyone around us, mainly the guys.  We were the only Americans there quite clearly- we recognized a few American songs but most of them were electronic spanish songs.  Despite the aroma of smoke and beer, I enjoyed the experience- eleven o'clock when we left and the party was still going strong.  Quite the birthday party- I did not even know whose birthday it was, but it didn't really matter.

The last activity near Otavalo was climbing Fuya Fuya, a peak near a lagoon that reaches over 14,000 feet.  The group split into two groups, one that would circle the lagoon and one that would summit Fuya Fuya with a guide.  The climb up took about an hour and a half and was not that technical, but more than that was the altitude.  14,000 feet is the highest altitude I have reached, and reaching that altitude took a bit of a price.  At times, especially after trying to run a short section, my chest pounded and my heart ached for oxygen.  I didn't notice it right after or during the burst, but a few seconds after stopping my chest exploded.  No headaches or anything, but at times my chest heaved for air.  The terrain was steep in sections too, but crazier was that the guide summits four times a week with other groups, and with one group of Frenchmen, they summited in 45 minutes.  The hike totaled about 2 km, so 45 minutes is blazing fast.  Two of the group climbed in loafers, which was quite the accomplishment.  After a bit of lake gazing and four hours in a bus back, some watching a movie with little sound called Universal Soldier and some squeezed in the back of a pickup truck, I arrived back in Atahualpa under a red-orange sunset and the welcoming handshake from my host dad, my host mom's soup and rice, and a hot cup of tea.  The smell of food here will be something to miss.

I'll try and post some pictures in my next post sometime soon- gotta run to dinner.      

Monday, October 10, 2011

Atahualpa Activities


So here are some tid bits about the past few days.  Here is a picture of the Ecuador-Venezuela World Cup qualifying match.  There is unfortunately, or fortunately, a lot to say about the game.  First, it blows US soccer out of the water- there were fireworks before the game, standing room only, and tons of screaming and singing.  Even people with seats were standing up pretty much the whole game!  There were no seats when we got in, so I stood the whole time.  Ecuador dominated pretty much the whole game, especially the first half when they scored two header goals.  They missed some golden opportunities second half, but still won 2-0.  One pretty neat event/tradition that happened was that when Ecuador scored a goal, people would throw their beer everywhere!  Never would happen in the US.  Even crazier was how packed the stadium was- people were sitting on the very edges of the stadium, overlooking the ground in order to see over the crowd.  Nobody really sat down the entire match, except for halftime, so I kind of ached by the end after all the standing and screaming and jumping.  Two of the girls in the group had things stolen out of their pockets on the way to the bathroom, sort of a big reality check for me.  The environment was so packed and pushy I was very afraid my camera would disappear, but luckily not.  The other TBB semester group kids came with us too, which was neat- although strange to meet new people, especially new Americans, outside of the group.  We've grown so close that I feel meeting new people awkward and a bit daunting even.  

Another highlight of the trip here so far was milking cows.  Last weekend, I went with Arden's host family at 8 to milk cows a little ways up from their house.  Comically, the truck had no seat belts, a speculative engine that would sometimes break down, but a USB port in the radio for music to work.  Pretty funny how much music is valued in this town.  I felt pretty helpless during the whole experience because I had no idea how to help.  I just stood around watching, frantically searching for ways to help "herd" the cow, tie up her legs, get water to wash off the teets, and then get the bucket to start milking.  It was difficult- I watch videos of people milking cows and it looks so easy, but the rhythm and the warm feeling of the cow are strange.  I got milk out, but it was tiring, and especially slow.  The cows like being milked, and actually need it to remain healthy, so the process is crucial.  If one does not milk the cow fast enough, some of the milk will be absorbed for the calf to suck out.  Because I was not fast enough milking, they needed to let the calf "warm up" the milk to come out.  The two sisters in the family squeezed out approximately 2 L in seconds, and we left with about 20 L of milk from three cows.  Some of the families here walk miles for only 6-7 L of milk for their family.  That milk goes to be processed, mostly for drinking but some also for fresh cheese.  I realized how difficult but rewarding farm life really is, and looking at myself compared to these rugged farm families, I feel pretty soft.  

Last week I ate my first guinea pig.  Yep- it tasted pretty good actually, but the final, crusted product of a fried guinea pig did not scare me that much.  It was more the process of killing the guinea pig and seeing it pre-cooked.  My host mom would kill the guinea pig herself, crushing its head down and breaking its neck only hours before lunch.  I did not see her skin it, but I did see the guinea pig split open, covered in a slimy sort of liquid before being cooked whole.  The skin became very crunchy, and compared to other meats, it was not that meaty.  Kind of like a rich chicken taste, which was good, but there was not much meat and it was difficult to eat- although guinea pig is a delicacy here.  Most likely it will not be the last guinea pig I eat in Ecuador.  

Lately I have struggled with feelings of apathy and normalcy in Atahualpa.  At times, I have felt as though I want to be somewhere else, even though I don't really know where.  TBB warned us of our days' feeling normal, and ordinary, despite the amazing adventure embedded in every moment.  Slowing down has helped me see the extraordinary- like this morning glancing outside to see the first snow of the trip blanketed on one of the tallest peaks.  Snow only amounts there every four years, and stays for a mer few hours.  I looked out tonight and saw clouds rolling off the mountains, gray and red streaks complementing the night's black.  For me, slowing down is difficult- I always look to do something, read a chapter, walk around, do pushups, whatever to remain efficient, make the most of the time I have.  But sometimes I find that being efficient defeats the purpose of efficiency.  Sometimes, being efficient and running around to accomplish tasks makes me lose sight of my surroundings, of my family here, and all of Atahualpa's subtle hints of culture I will miss and dream about in a few weeks.  In almost all of the interview my group has conducted we hear about the tranquility, the peace in Atahualpa.  There is no crime here- every time we glance into the police station we see facebook's emblem laden across the screen.  The town is so personal, so grounded, so slow in time.  I try to reach this state, the state where I can forget readings, forget stomach aches or whatever bothers me and just be- yoga today helped a lot, just focusing on the movements, the breathing, the simple actions and processes of living.  Slowing down helps me appreciate where I am.  I am in Atahualpa under the constant gaze of mountains, overlooking verdant, rolling hills spotted with cows, and I try to remember that every day here is extraordinary.

    

Monday, October 3, 2011

Atahualpa First Impressions

We arrived in Atahualpa about 5 days ago and met up with our host families- I underestimated how amazing that experience really is.  Sitting in Quito comparing host brothers, sisters, etc. seemed very odd and wrong somehow, to compare families, but now after settling in I really love where I am.  I have five brothers and two sisters, so a huge family, but only one brother lives in the house full time- his name is David.  So everyone else lives elsewhere and works- some in Quito that come to Atahualpa on Sundays, but the others live farther away and don't visit as often.  It's pretty crazy how everyone thinks I am freakishly tall here- and it is because I kind of am.  The ceilings in the house are very short- especially doorways, so I have to duck so as not to hit my head every time.  I have already hit my head multiple times-- but everyone in the family is relatively short, especially the parents. So I am very tall relative to everyone around me.  The house is not really a house, but a connection of rooms- kitchen, bedrooms, and bathrooms with a shower.  Lucky for me, a bucket shower but with hot water.  The bucket shower felt a bit awkward, but really isn't all that different from a regular shower.  So pretty small house setup, but cozy-- everyone knows each other, there is a balcony overlooking the town area, and everything feels quaint.  My spanish has improved tremendously- especially my comfort with speaking with my family.  I was playing bananagrams in spanish and struggled a bit, but after switching over to english I kept thinking of spanish words to play, so I struggled even more.  Thinking in spanish is pretty neat- hard to switch back and forth between languages though.

The town is very remote- about a 2 hour bus ride to Quito, and direct access to a lot of mountains nearby. When we go out for work projects, we see farmers on sloped mountainsides, cows, horses, chickens, a slew of farm life.  My host mom always says "tranquilo", which means calm, and I get the impression that life here is calm but very trying.  When I woke up for a 6 am run I was not alone in the least- many other farmers were walking for milk or other farm duties/necessities here.  Gladys, one of the main figures in the local government, says that many people need to walk miles for milk, and that the milk economy is not very efficient.  Being in so remote a place involves a lot of walking, especially because farm life is so busy.  Yet, contrary to my assumption of food in Ecuador, I have eaten a ton.  Some meals I have not been able to finish because of the sheer mass of food.  A lot of soups, rice, empanadas, tea, chicken, and some beef too.  One of the most different customs here with food is the eating of guinea pigs.  My family here thought it strange that we did not eat our pet guinea pig, Star, because on the roof of the house, they take care of 20-30 guinea pigs for selling and eating.  But to my knowledge, I have not yet eaten any guinea pig- though I hear it is a treat.  The amount of fruit here is amazing too- my mother makes a lot of juices, including melon, tomato, pineapple, and mandarin.  Really sweet too.

Much like Quito, many of the material goods here are extremely cheap.  Instead of a one or two dollar ice cream, most ice creams here are 30 cents.  Tissues were only 75 cents, but buying select goods like sunscreen cost 13-15 dollars!  The other day I saw a car with toilet paper on the dashboard- here they place toilet paper only in the trash.  Apparently, even an item like an X-Box or Playstation amounts to 1,000 dollars, whereas in the US they are only about 200.  So it depends on what kind of items to purchase.  The first few days everyone went crazy on the ice cream because of the novelty of it being so cheap- we've tapered off a bit, but the ice cream craze still continues.

Our work project here revolves/focuses around the study of the environment and natural resources.  Our main focus for all of our trail work and other projects to come is ecotourism for Atahualpa.  We have had two days of work thus far- one digging paths for water to travel down the side of a road, and today working on widening a path to waterfalls in the mountains.  The road we worked on led to the Fuya Fuya- one of the highest mountains here.  The road was incredibly bumpy- so we dug ditches for water runoff on the side of the road while using that dirt to fill ditches in the middle of the road.  It was a bit of a fragile situation- we were worried that rain could wash away all of our work and make the road even worse.  We don't know yet because we haven't returned, but it has rained a lot.  Very gray in the afternoons- we arrived on a bluebird day, but have had pretty steady gray, cloudy afternoons.  We are a little lower here than in Quito, but not much, so the clouds are very close.  Every night so far I've looked out from the balcony and thought that we were in a cloud.  We actually might be.  The other day of work, for today, was clearing a path to the waterfalls.  A bit sketchy of a path to get there, but we widened it a bit.  At some parts the path drops off to cliffs, more or less, and we had to cross a waterfall at one point to get to another.  So a bit scary at times.  We saw three waterfalls, the biggest of which was about 20-30 meters tall, so maybe a little less than 100 feet.  Really big- the water crashing down looked like the spray from a Coast Guard helicopter hovering above the ocean.  Really gorgeous- we'll get to work near them more in the future.  I can't help but think about what ecotourism will mean for Atahualpa- I keep thinking that the more ecotourism they attract, the less culturally beautiful Atahualpa will become.  More stores, more urbanization and other such forces might attract more visitors, but at what cost to Atahualpa's remoteness and unique culture?  I am sure I will learn more about these questions as I continue to live and explore here.

Weekends are completely different from weekdays- weekdays it is a ghost town, little commotion or people on the street.  But on weekends, families reunite, kids run in the street, and soccer games continue all day in the stadium.  There is also a pool here!  A dollar for admission, but very new- barely a week or two since we arrived.  But soccer is HUGE here- a lot of different towns have their own teams, and they play every weekend.  I was watching a game where there were two red cards and almost a fight.  Really intense- ecua-volley is another sport here, similar to volleyball but played with a soccer ball and a much higher net.  I had a cold this weekend so I couldn't play much unfortunately, only watching.

Other little tid bits- seems that everything is very family oriented here.  The first night I showed maybe ten or so photos of family and friends, and then they showed me about three albums worth of pictures.  Lot of family value, and very friendly too.  Everyone says hi to each other as they pass in the street, and the vibe is calm, but focused and serious too.  Music resonates a lot here too- instead of ipods, the people I've met have songs on their phones instead, and have showed me some of their American songs, mainly electronic.  There is only one clock in the house that I have seen, and time is regarded as a guideline but not a necessity.  Sort of reading time with nature, or time in relation to meals.  All the food is fresh and local too- meats, fruits, vegetables everything.  Very different from the supermarkets of the US, where we don't always know where the food is coming from.  Although the food is not perfect- I was eating some toasted corn and ended up finding a needle in the little bag.  Very scary to see that I almost ate a nail.  But otherwise no problems with food- I can't drink tap water, eat vegetables cold, or fruits with the skin on them, but otherwise all the food agrees with me.

No mosquitoes either, which I love.  Mountains all around, thin air, lot of readings and deep thoughts.  I think I am beginning to understand that this gap year is very different from my average vacation.