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.