Even as I begin to adjust to life here in Honduras, every once in awhile I catch myself and realize that my surroundings, my activities, and experiences everyday here are unlike anything I would be able to do anywhere else. Whether it be the beautiful mountain drive to the hot springs, being able to navigate my way to the best local Pupuseria (a great local food we´ve discovered) from anywhere in the city, or learning a Honduran perspective on both US and Honduran politics. I think slowly the comfort zones of everyone in our group have expanded and will continue to do so as we continue our travels and eventually find work and friends in Yorito. Despite minor setbacks like attempting to navigate a bathroom in complete darkness (due to occasional power losses) and a general lack of clean clothes, we´re still foraging ahead and loving every minute of it!
So it has been a while since the last post. Interestingly enough, this is the final day of our trip. So really, this entry will contain our activities from July 12th to today. I suggest firing up the microwave and get some popcorn.
The last two and a half weeks have been more than hectic. Our project took some harsh turns as Cochabamba was entirely out of rebar. No rebar, no significant building. So we put together a pilot program and furnished the building with a refrigerator, chairs, tables, a stove, a small library composed of donated books, and school supplies. The pilot program ran three days a week with Tuesday and Thursday left for minor construction. We divided the children of the community by grade. Teaching hygiene has been our main focus. We have been encouraging hand washing and teeth brushing.
The water has been hooked up to the local pump and electricity will be connected soon (we bought all of the materials and left them in the hands of Ernesto, the man in charge of the entire operation). The project will take much more work before it is a full fledge orphanage. Bolivian law says that an orphanage must have a wall and a security guard. We have quite a bit more to go before this project leaps from a community center to an orphanage. This is not at all to say that our work is in vain. More than 60 kids are a part of the program that will run to the end of August. Reinforcements will arrive in March to continue the construction.
Since the last post, the culinary adventures of our group have continued with great satisfaction. We have tried beef heart, kidneys, beef tongue, and llama. Beef heart is interesting. Chewy, flavorful, a bit grainy, definitely worth trying. Most of us, including the “vegetarian” of the group enjoyed it. Kidneys taste much like sausage. Though we were never informed of which animal the kidneys were actually from, they were delicious. Beef tongue is tender, juicy, and lean. Cooked for hours in tomato sauce and spices, served with potatoes, pasta, and beans, the tongue leaped to a Bolivian favorite. Llama is not just tasty. It is the manifestation of delicious. It was partnered on a skewer with bacon, fresh red peppers, and onions. Try llama.
On our weekends, we have been making a point to get around Bolivia. One Saturay we decided to travel to Mizque. We set off at 7AM and stopped for a lovely breakfast at a truck stop. After that we went to a lovely, relatively overlooked ruin called Incallajta. A beautiful waterfall cuts the ruins in two. The history is fascinating and the site is astounding. We made our way to Tatora, where the intended 50 kilometer bike ride was intended to begin. Five minutes in, one bike broke. Thirty minutes in, the bikers got split up. An hour and a half in, two more bikes broke. 3 hours in, the bikers were reunited. 4 hours in, another bike broke. Around 8PM, in an attempt to cross a river, our Volkswagen bus broke down. We resorted to cuddling for warmth in the frigid Andes for a night. It was below freezing. At 530AM the owner of Casa International and one of the adventurers hiked and biked the remaining 40km to Mizque on the remaining two bikes. Those that stayed behind enjoyed basking in the river and a wonderful view. A taxi picked up those that stayed behind and all were reunited in Mizque. We enjoyed a steak dinner that seemed to be an entire cow. The next day, we made our way home on a bus.
This last weekend, we traveled to Lake Titicaca and spent a night on the Isla de Sol (Island of the Sun). Unfortunately, we never made it to the Island of the Moon, but regardless, Lake Titicaca is overwhelmingly fascinating. Consider this, 13000 feet above sea level sits the highest lake in the world. It holds the largest volume of water in South America for a lake. Surrounding the lake are brown mountains, around those, 16000ft snow capped Andes. No more than 10 boats are visible at any time and all of them carry no more that 30 people. The lake is pristine. The islands are a direct connection to the history of the religion of the Aymara. It is difficult to grasp the concept that Lake Titicaca is actually real.
After completing our national park project in 2 short days, we indulged ourselves in a whale watching island adventure. About 20 miles off the coast from Puerto Lopez there is a small island, around 3 miles long, named “isla de la plata” that is better known as the poor man’s galapagos. On this island you can see blue footed boobies, sea lions, masked boobies, and many other interesting species. We were lucky to be led on this journey by 2 of the park rangers from Machalilla, one of whom served as our guide once on the island.
We departed from the beach right when the fishermen were finishing up their morning exchanges. We hopped onboard and we very unprepared for the nausea that was to come, especially on my part. The waves were powerful, smacking the boat.
A typical day in the Old Town area of Quito involves passing by Romanesque churches with towering arches and intricate rose windows, juxtaposed with small shops and helado venders, occasional cobble street roads, and narrow paved streets flowing through a tall valley of multistory edificios. Spanish-Franco architecture elegantly blankets the tiendas with pastel hues of peach and sky blue, finished with adorned balconies. A typical day involves taking numerous taxis, which are just about as common here as in New York. It also includes witnessing black clouds of smoke that offend the lungs, perpetually exhaused by sardine packed buses, underneath the perpetually creamy white clouds that blanket the Andes verdes. Taking the bus this morning blasting Michael Jackson’s eighties hit “Beat It”–bus rides are always an interesting experience, involving passing vendors, guitarists, and the occassional beggar–I pondered all the curiosities of a city affected by the amenities and conformities of globalization. Here, American music and culture (food, fashion, language, you name it) is what is in. And I mean all of it: including the fast-food that we begrudgingly look down upon as the disease of the American multinational corporation infecting the entire world. And the white-washed overpriced taste of Hollister and Abercrombie. Yep. Dancing at a bar we listend to numerous American techno hits. Learning English is the road to success here. Talking to Tatchi about my apathy towards foreign language studies in high school presented a stark contrast between my situation of already speaking English and the grave importance of the American economy and language for Latin American countries: it is more of a necessity for students, accounting for the extra drive.
But then then there are certain things that are uniquely and distinctively American that have not been adopted. One of them includes excessive apologies and unnecessary politeness. “Don’t be sorry,” Alicia tells me with confidence. “That’s very American.” Another thing is the need to plan ahead, to organize our lives and the world around us. Busses don’t have any schedules, and plane flights are impossible to arrange far in advance. Also the weather is unpredictable. I wanted to know how the weather would be like for the weekend, and that was simply not forecasted in Ecuador. There is no Ecuadorian weather station–the vicissitudes of nature’s variable moods are deemed beyond human measurement. And that makes sense in a place where there are only two seasons per year, yet four seasons in one day! (Quote from Luchito, our excellent invernadero-builder Political instability is prevalent in Ecuador tambien. Ecuador has had eight Presidents in the last ten years, governance changing almost as erratically as the weather. As a result, political activism is ferfent and strong. I asked how old you have to be to vote and was very surprised to discover that you only need to be sixteen to vote (and only 18 to drink, of course), making me ashamed that I was one month too young to vote for Obama in ’08. The importance of politics is readily visible when walking anywhere in the city, for nearly all the street names are dedicated to historical events and important people. There is even one
Trapped in Paradise
Prose inspired by la Cascada de Peguche, Otavalo
Standing in the mouth
of river sculpted hollows
We watch the outpouring
of momentous froth;
A tongue of unrelenting roar
Pounding and pounding to form
ripples upon the cavern floor
And drips of saliva mist along
the moist, padded walls of moss.
We are at the mercy of nature’s
will and wonder, power and grace
We are at the hands of her care
and the hospitality of her
Humble abode’s dreams and dangers alike.
We are small, powerless;
We are nothing in comparison to
this grand mouth within which we are enclosed
To be consumed, mesmerized, and entranced
while consuming, with each and every
one of the senses wide awake
No one with a human heart
could resist being partially consumed
Stretched to bit of bias before this
To see the mystical and precious power that
the passivity of nature provides
And the grace of which none can deny.
We are Jonas trapped within
the mouth of the whale
Much bigger and grander and
more forgiving than us,
this mouthful of wonder
shows us both beauty benevolent
and the price of bounties burned.
After a week of crazyness and graduation…we finally made it to guatemala! It is more beautiful than I could have every imagined. I am in the town of El Jicaro in the district of El Progresso in Guatemala. Our town is safe compared to others. We are staying in a quaint little hotel called ¨Mi Casita¨painted the traditional bright colors of Guatemala and adorned with the typical Guatemalan hammock. The people here are constantly smiling and staring at the awkward ¨American tourists¨. We certainly stick out among all the locals. Tuk Tuks are these little open air, red cabs that swerve violently throughout the streets, without regard to pedestrians, dogs, or anything else that may be in there way. So far it has rained everyday, but not the whole day. Right now it is raining with thunderstorms, but it is a refreshing change from the dry California climate.
We met the women we are working with on Tuesday. Our driver, Lepe, drives us there and back everyday for about 20 quetazles, which is the equivalent then less than 3 US dollars. Breakfast is about 15 to 20 quetzales and dinner is about 20. Everythin is about 2 to 3 US dollars. As our dollar goes a long way, people are still suffering the turmoil of poverty. Many live in homes made of scrap metal, wood, even hardened clay. The little rooms are at max capacity as the whole, often extended family piles together. Many are illiterate. Tortillas and beans are the staple diet which they make from scratch daily on a stone stove outside heated with fire and wooden logs. Chickens, stray dogs, and sometimes even cats roam the village as if they owned it. The village that the women live in is caled ¨31 de May¨. Even though they lack our daily American indulgences they are grateful for what they have. They´re permanent warm smiles tell me so everyday. I have taken 100s of pictures of the kids. They are breathtaking.
The women of 31 de Mayo seem to need a lot of help. They are still in the beginning stages of starting their own shampoo business. We are here to really organize their ideas and make the investments that will lead to a sustainable future for these women and their families. 2 weeks is not enough, but any short amount of time is enough to make an impact.
We are listening to a reggae-infused spanish ballad, Sigue bailando mi amor, by El Rookie, in the internet cafe in El Progresso, Guatemala. It is beautiful just like the days here. We spent the day working with the less developed cooperative of women in El Jicaro, reviewing their accounting procedures, scribbling furious notes, translating, and envisioning a method that will allow them to see their profits after buying supplies and selling product each month. We sampled the Savila (Aloe Vera) shampoo last night and purchased Manzanilla to try today. The women advised certain flavors are intended for certain types of hair–Steven and I fit Manzanilla by virtue of our light brunette locks–and they swear certain flavors have amazing health benefits, like the shampoo that regrew a local woman´s hair after chemotherapy treatment. We plan to further research these healing properties, although through my own research thus far I have found that the plants with which they infuse their shampoos all treat physical ailments and the benefits of natural ingredients are revered in these regions…since discovering this and considering our marketing tactics in this light, I have begun to notice advertisements for ¨natural¨ingredients in sodas and juices everywhere. In spite of this appreciation for natural products, bright colored goods infused with colorante are popular in the markets, at least in part because they evoke the luxury of imported products. This response has come up every time I have questioned one of our native guides. Unfortunately, plastic-intense packaging for products is also what sells, which coupled with the lack of trash disposal services is harming the beautiful environment here.
SAN AUGUSTIN– Today was our second day at the market with our wonderful group of women. I have to say, if you think selling shampoos and disinfectants is an easy task– try it for yourself. Amidst the heat and crowded areas, we split into 4 groups to sell as much as possible. We did pretty well and were able to sell out of the lavender disinfectants. The only thing that I am worried about is if the women will be as energetic about selling once we leave.
Working on the labels and logo is well, how should I put it, rather interesting. Ashley and I are rather, well, illiterate in Photoshop. Sarita did help us with the logo though and I think it looks rather nice. We´re hoping to take it into a print shop tomorrow to get the price quote and image finalized.
On another note, we have become regulars at this restaurant called `Ta Contento (it is short for esta contento), and we met the owner the other night– who we learned was the governor of the city. He paid for our round of drinks and when we returned the following night, he greeted us and introduced us to his family. The waiter at the restaurant has the hots for Lidia, he tried several times, how do you put it, to spit some game at her. He offered to take us out over the weekend and even brought us over some free pastries. Unfortunately, his efforts were sin exito (without success) because Lidia proceeded to reject him and it wasn´t a pretty site, initially.
When he offered to take us out to the aquarium on his day off, Lidia responded with something like, ¨tenemos muchos parques en los estados unidos y no queremos gastar el dia adentro, gracias¨– This translates to we have plenty of parks in the US and we don´t want to WASTE our day inside, thank you. I told Lidia that it came out super wrong and she explained herself to him. That´s when he brought us from free cake. I guess he likes it when his girls are hard to get. Hope Lidia doesn´t kick my butt when she sees that I wrote about it. I´ll keep you updated on the brewing romance. Guess that´s all for now.
We caught the ConQuito van at 7:15 (super early) on the morning of Thursday the 23rd and rode to “La factoría de conocimientos” (the factory of knowledge) or ConQuito headquarters to meet up with Luchito and Luis Roman (the other Luchito) who would be our agro-engineers for this last project. On our way to the site, we stopped at a bioferria, which are the markets held on Thursdays at designated locations for the people from other ConQuito projects to see their produce and other goods. It was the first one we had been to and it was similar to American farmer’s markets, except way less expensive! One woman gave us a gift of frutillas, tiny strawberries, before we made our way to the project site.
Our final site is located in the neighborhood of San Jose de Monjas. We are now working with a community garden that is maintained mostly by 2 men, Don Luis (whose mother-in-law owns the land) and Don Jorge (who is a neighbor and friend of Don Luis). This garden is beautiful! The plants are huge, cabbages that are the size of a beach ball, and to top it off are 100% organic already! I am incredibly impressed with this garden as well as the people who own and maintain it. I can’t wait to build our greenhouse here and learn more about this communities individual aspirations for their future with conquito and organic farming in general!
This project is different than all the others have been because it will be directly affecting/benefiting a small unit (basically one large family and their neighbors). The work has gone so quickly because as Alicia says, we are now “experts” at building greenhouses. After the first day, we already had the post holes dug, the main support posts for the structure firmly planted in the ground, the wires framing the location of the beds and in place for the tomatoes to grow to and to cling to wrapped around the beams, the ground leveled and the beds mapped out. Unlike our previous projects, nobody ever stopped working (except for at lunchtime). The men who are now the owners of the greenhouse were like sponges to the knowledge of constructing and maintaining greenhouses and creating a sustainable agricultural business shared by the 2 Luchitos. Don Luis never stopped asking questions about each step of the process because he already has plans for his second greenhouse and other future greenhouses on land his family has located just outside of the city.
Day 2 brought the plastic. It was an unbelievably windy day, and being atop a hill (maybe it could be categorized as a mountain, I’m not sure) we had zero protection from the powerful gusts. Being as there were only Brianna, Adrian and I as volunteers, and Don Luis, Don Jose and his son Kevin as the community members and the Luchitos as engineers, we needed all the help we could get to cover the greenhouse with the heavy-duty plastic. Don Luis called up his wife, son and friends to grab some plastic and hold it down snugly so that Luchito could nail it securely to the frame. After a finger-achingly long time, we had successfully covered the greenhouse in plastic and were ready to dig out the beds. Inside another hot and sweaty greenhouse Bri, Adrian, Kevin and I took turns switching between hoes and shovels digging out the beds. The work is hard, but in a way relaxing and fun. It didn’t take us long to have all the beds dug to the proper depth (around 18 inches), and we finished just in time for the end of the day.
Day 3 was filled with abono, lots and lots of abono (guinea pig poop). Since we had the pre-dug beds from the day before, we simply added yerba, (basically weeds without their roots) then added the abono and mixed it all together. Then we built up the beds with the extra dirt that was over-filling the sides and back of the greenhouse and cleaned the soil with organic fertilizers. The next step was the drip irrigation/creating a way for water to reach the greenhouse which was atop a hill with no water source. The men created a hose/pvc piping system that connected the water from the garden below with the greenhouse up on the hill with a hanging hose, a long pvc pipe and a nozzle right outside of the greenhouse. Putting the small black tubing (pre-cut with the holes for the drip system) in place took twice as long as before because instead of just getting the job done, we were teaching the men how to do it, showing them then having them do it, because it was an important skill they would need for their future greenhouses. The only thing we had left to do at the end of the day was actually plant the seedlings, a task we saved for the final day.
Day 4 was our last day. It is unbelievable that a plot of land can be transformed in just 3 days from barren to yielding a greatly important structure such as a greenhouse! If we can build one in basically 3 days, imagine how many projects could be completed with a solid flow of educated volunteers and constant funding! Ok so our last day was more of a symbolic day than anything else. We took our time planting the seedlings while chatting with the friends and family that had gathered for the occasion. Don Luis hung a ceremonial ribbon and he and I cut it, marking the new opportunities that are to come with this greenhouse. We then cut the ribbon into pieces, giving each person who was present a piece of the ribbon and a share in the greenhouse. The irrigation system was testing (it passed) and the efficiency of drip irrigation was discussed. It is super efficient! Within 5 minutes, the water had reached a depth of nearly a foot. When the seedlings are plants with their roots reaching deep into the earth, this system will ensure that they are getting the nutrients and water they need to grow tall and produce healthy and delicious tomatoes!
Don Luis then invited us to a celebration! All of the agro-engineers and other administrators from ConQuito joined us at the site along with the neighbors, friends and family of Don Luis and Don Jose to drink champagne, sing songs, eat food, make speaches and share in the celebration of their greenhouse and our final project in Ecuador. We were touched by the speached made by Alex from ConQuito, telling us that we were their greatest volunteers yet and offering us a place in Quito if ever we were to return. We had become part of this community, that of both San Jose de Monjas (the site of the project) and of ConQuito.
After an amazing first project and a relaxing but demanding project at Machalilla National Park, we returned to Quito with good tans, burns in some cases, a great appreciation and much respect for the amazing people at ConQuito who we’ve collaborated and worked with so far, and an extreme craving for Crepes and Waffles (probably the most gringo restaurant we could possibly find here). After talking about eating there for over a day, we hopped in a cab and stuffed ourselves with salads the size of our faces, crepes with delicious fillings and of course ice cream. As usual, we arrived home a little after 9 and all proceeded to pass out. We’re such a rowdy group!
We had planned on starting the second project on Tuesday, the 21st but were delayed 2 days. I guess I’ll have to backtrack a bit to explain why we were held back. So Triple Salto and ConQuito work pretty often with volunteers from the UK. These volunteers are usually high school students who are partaking in their “trek” which is an adventure trip that is required by many schools there. Arranged by an adventure trekking company, these volunteers can do any number of projects, but in working with Triple Salto and ConQuito, their project is a greenhouse, garden and mural, just like ours. So while we left for the coast, 2 groups of 16 English high school girls, along with their teachers and guides, had started their projects. Both groups spoke much less Spanish than our group and were having difficulty communicating with their engineers but were also just cutting it close to their deadline for finishing their projects. In order for us to begin our second project in the neighborhood of San Jose de Monjas, we needed the tools and of course the agro-engineers that the girls from the UK were occupying. That being said, we split into 2 groups and went to their sites to help in any way that we could.
It ended up being Adrian and I, and Bri and Renata, then Bri and Chris the second day. The morning of the 21st, we headed out to meet up with the groups we were going to be working with not knowing what to expect. Adrian and I were met by a group of kind, smiling 16 and 17 year olds, their 2 super sweet teachers and their male trekking guide from the company they are doing their trip with. He had a sort of sour demeanor and he seemed to not be looking at his situation with this group in the most positive of ways, telling Adrian and I when we asked him if he was a teacher from the school or a parent, or what his association was (because we had no idea who he was at first) that he wasn’t a teacher or a father and that “he would never sign up for this if he wasn’t getting paid!” This tipped us off that communication was going to be the main issue of the day.
We chatted with the teachers and the girls, who were all really interested in their project, but just sort of confused on everything that was going on. They hadn’t been able to really communicate well with their engineer so far, they were receiving little instruction and couldn’t see the big picture of their project and they wanted jobs to do, but just didn’t know what. That was where Adrian and I came in. Although we had only built 1 greenhouse, our project had been at a slower pace and we had taken part in every step of the process so we knew the order of things to be done and more importantly why certain things had to be done at certain times and in certain ways. This I think was the key to everything for our group, knowing the purpose of all the little jobs they had to do and seeing the big picture of the greenhouse.
When we arrived on site, a primary school really far in the south and partway up into the hills/mountains, I’m not sure what to call them, we went straight to work. We introduced ourselves to the crew, asked what the jobs that needed to be done were, and took over as translators between the agro-engineers and the girls and everything seemed to go pretty smoothly. At times we just took the project into our own hands, figured out what jobs needed to be done next, asked the engineers and got approval and just started them on our own. I think that sometimes projects can get overwhelming for everyone and people get focused on their task forgetting that there are 20 people standing around, willing and ready to work but just waiting for instructions.
Halfway through the day, Alicia came by the site to check on everything with Alex, Maria and Angelito from Conquito. Our project seemed to be moving along, so they stole me away to go on a mission: buy gineau pig compost. It was cool to talk with everyone from Conquito about my expectations and impressions of their organization and the projects, but I could have done without the gineau pig poop. We drove for about a half hour up into the hills in South Quito and came across a house with a small “abono de cuye” or gineau pig compost business. We were invited into the yard by the husband of the woman who raises the gineau pigs and shown the animals before we got down to business. We had the lovely job of transferring every 3 small bags into 1 big bag or compost. This involved getting up close and personal with some rank smelling stuff, I am a little nauseous writing things now because I feel like I smell the compost while thinking and writing about it…gross!
After transferring the poop and getting a lovely layer of it all over my pants, shoes and sadly, hands, we headed back to the site to drop it off and continue working. By the end of the day, we had 3 walls completed, trenches dug for burying the plastic of the walls to make them tight, beds dug, filled with compost and rebuilt and everything in place to finish the following day. We finally made it home around 6, ate dinner, and got ready to do the same thing the next day.
So we decided to switch projects sites for the next day in order to see as many different sites as possible. The other site was at an orphanage for abandoned children. It’s a really cool place because instead of having dorm-style rooms for the children, instead they have around 12 houses that each have a “mom” who lives there with 10 or so children. It’s a really interesting way of organizing an orphanage that I think is amazing because it does its best to mimic a normal family style life for the children. The group of girls that we worked with at this site needed a little more motivation than the other group, but I think it was just because they weren’t used to doing physical labor/volunteer work. After another long day of work, their project was in a good place and all they had to do the next day was plant the tomatoes!
I think the determining factors for each project has been the intrinsic motivation of the workers and the relationship they build with their agro-engineers and crew from ConQuito. Working closely with such wonderful people like Luchito and Diana who are amazing leaders, who care about everyone they are working with and who get the job done well and in a timely manner has strengthened our experience here!
After our second (and final) day helping out the girls from the UK, Chris left us to return home to the states. The next day, Renata headed back to the states as well leaving Brianna, Adrian and myself to start and complete our second official project!