Sunday, March 30, 2008

In The Airport

Journal Entry
18 March 2008
Cafe in the Lima Airport, Peru

I came to the airport this morning at 4am to find out that Jon´s flight from Miami had been delayed.

"When will it arrive?" I asked.

"We do not know."

"Why is it delayed?"

"It is cancelled."

"Why was it cancelled?"

"We do not know."

Now that I had that cleared up, I went to keep Sarah company while she waited for her 7am flight to the jungle. At least we´d been able to split the cab fare on this pre-dawn excursion. But I was in limbo. Is he arriving in 2 hours or 20? Do I stay and find a comfy corner somewhere and read my book, or do I go all the way back to Miraflores?

I bought another coffee.

I finally got in touch with Jon who was awaiting his not super Super-Shuttle from the airport hotel. His best estimate was that he´d arrive somewhere around 4pm. "It´s hard to say, sweetie, because technically my flight doesn´t exist." Always a good sign.

Now that I knew I had about 12 hours to wait, it was ridiculous to consider staying in the airport that long, but this meant I had to make the long and chaotic journey back to my quiet, tree-lined little neighborhood in Lima, and I could not afford the taxi. But the direct public transport wouldn´t be available until 10am. I finally decided I would take a combo of combis (small manic mini vans packed full of hurried Limeños on their way to work) and hope for the best.

As I got various sets of instructions from various men all around the airport, I was crossing the parking lot when approached by a "taxi economico" driver who I told straight away I had only 10 soles (average fare in a taxi economico is 30). He made his way down from 30 to 25 to 20, all the while following me across the mostly empty blacktop. I swung around and said with a big smile, "Seriously, I´d love to take a taxi, but I ONLY HAVE TEN." (I actually had 15). He repeated, "Only ten?" then looked at the sky, surveyed the obvious lack of early morning fares (American Airlines had screwed not only me and Jon, but also the fleet of taxis waiting for that 4:30am arrival) and said, "Okay. We go." I had just struck the best Lima airport taxi fare deal of all time. And so Jimmy and I walked out of the parking lot to find his secretly parked taxi and he took me all the way back to Miraflores as the sun came up to shine a pink light over the city.

Finally got "confirmation" that Jon´s flight would be in at 3:30, which of course turned out to be 4:30 and so I figured I would take the public bus back to the airport in order to save money, especially seeing as last night I received (angry, disappointed) word from Mom and Dad that I was overdrawn on the Connecticut account. My "magic card" was indeed playing magical tricks by giving me money when I had none.

I ended up sharing a taxi with Gareth, Chris, Wiktor and Tom to Lima Centro, the historical district, from where I would then walk about 30 minutes through the truly lovely colonial Lima streets, making my way to a less than quaint part of town where the Aeropuerto bus was supposed to be. After several stopoffs in shops to consult my map, helping a man carry a bucket of putty across an intersection, and another few inquiries of men on the street, some who had the right information and some who had the wrong, I finally made it to the correct side of the crazy boulevard and got on the correct utterly dilapidated bus.

1 sol (about 35 cents) took me through shanty towns and past desert-cliffside pueblos for about 40 minutes. I kept trying to locate my position on the Lonely Planet map cause I was worried I might miss my stop as there are no announcements on this kind of a ride. But I should know by now that when a gringa gets on a local bus, everyone knows and the driver and/or the driver´s mate make sure to tell me. And yes, as we began to enter a wider, flatter part of the city where the blacktop was blacker, the driver caught my eye in the rearview and said "Aeropuerto" while smiling and waving his hand in the direction I would need to go.

The fear of navigating the seemingly random and utterly chaotic public transport systems in a 3rd world capital city comes from it being so entirely unknown, like anything I suppose. It is a fear based only on something you have created in your imagination. A fear of standing out. A fear of "doing something wrong." Self-consciousness can be like a paralysis. The thing is, once you do it, your confidence expands exponentially and this sense of victoriousness glows like a light in the bell of your being. It is remarkable what 35 cents and little adventurousness can do for your sense of self. It´s often hilarious, comical, or fraught with confusion and missteps, and my god OF COURSE you stand out! You´re like the grenade on the birthday cake. But when you arrive the thrill is almost absurd in it´s simplicity and totality. I felt like I´d crossed the finish line in some mammoth race, and all I´d done was take a bus that thousands of people take every single day. And I was sitting down the whole time.

Lima has been a sweet surprise. Peruvian´s, too. The random acts of kindness, like Jimmy the taxi driver, or like my security guard at the 24 grocery store this morning who gave me a free cup of coffee from his own personal thermos since the coffee machine was broken, or the woman who gave me the free Chavin keychain even after she very reluctantly dropped the price of a scarf by only 2 soles; the smiling and genuinely friendly service in restaurants and shops; the old man who walked me to my hostel--all of this has found me falling quite unexpectedly in love with Peru, and here I thought Ecuador had my heart entire.

It´s like Togo, where I was pickpocketed and held at gunpoint by the military on a dark dirt road but nevertheless felt so charmed and besotted by the people in general that those incidents would not decide my ultimate opinion of the nation. And here, where I´ve been robbed at gunpoint on a mountainside and where money changers tried to cheat my during my first 3 minutes in the country and where I have to pay to take pictures of the llamas and where the threat of danger does sometimes feel more tangible in the streets, I am nevertheless enchanted and so very sad my time here is already half gone.

I was so afraid and reluctant to leave Ecuador, when in fact what I needed to was to go. My funk, my frustration, my listlessness came or stemmed from, I think, staying too long in one place I loved. Much like what I was going through in New York. I need change. It rejuvenates me. Inspires me. Activates some energy field deep within my muscles and mind. It opens my eyes. I´ve been hoping somehow on this trip I´d find a sense or a place or a reason to "settle down somewhere." Maybe that just isn´t me. Maybe I don´t have to think in terms of "forever." And maybe finally I will allow that to be okay.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Finding My Flock. Again.

"In the end, we will conserve that which we love. We will love that which we understand. And we will understand that which we are taught." --Baba Dioum

It was at The Black Sheep Inn where I was first moved by clouds. I was moved because they moved. Hurtling swiftly down from their usual heavenly station, blanketing the crumpled and patchworked hills of Chugchilan.

The clouds in Ecuador, I realized in 2005, move in a way I have never seen weather move. Benign weather. Not the fierce, catastrophic movement of hurricane winds or twister funnels. This was a daily change, one that silenced the outside world in a hazy hush, signaling the end of a day, time to retreat to a woodfire, a cookstove, a warm blanket. Edges soften. Light dims. The clouds begin their descent like curling smoke, slowly loosening their bits from the greater cover above, to trickle down as nebulous garland--trimming the mountains; in some places slicing them in half and splitting the view, hanging in the balance between high and highest. And then, suddenly swift, magical mists would unfurl in great sheaves, falling over everything, filling the canyon below, milky dew in a giant green basket.

The clouds were not the only thing that moved me at The Black Sheep Inn. I wrote extensively about my few days high in the central Andes when I first visited this astonishing eco-lodge in 2005. It changed my perspective about what possibility there is to do right by the world, the planet, and the community around you.

The following is an excerpt from an email I sent on June 25th, 2005. Suffice it to say, I was even more impressed the second time around...

"It is a funny thing how life takes you places you never knew you needed to go; how you can come away from somewhere you never imagined being in the first place, and then find it impossible to imagine you could have lived without that place as a part of your past. I feel this way about Columbia Street, about The Red Rail, Ghana, Ecuador, and now, strangely and specifically, about The Black Sheep Inn, an ecologically conscious hotel in a "middle-of-nowhere" village--Chugchilan--high (very high) in the central Ecuadorian
Andes. The hotel itself--meaning the actual structure and construction of both building and grounds--is an inspiration, one that would not exist without Andres and Michelle, a North American couple who traveled to that nowhere village 12 years ago, before there was something such as a hotel to draw them there.

They were a couple in their late twenties, backpackers,¨off the beaten path¨seekers, black sheep if you will, who wound up there and discovered that this nothing village was in fact full of somethings. As I said, when they arrived, this poorest of the poor villages making up what the guidebooks call The Quilotoa Loop, had no hotels and so they knocked on some doors until a family allowed them to spend the night. That night turned into 2 weeks, and that family offered to sell them land.

Michelle and Andres, I imagine, then followed that indefinable sense, that some kind of feeling which defies definition or explanation, and allowed their hearts, minds and imaginations to be free enough, to be open enough, to vast, inconceivable possibilities. Possibilities which are terrifying and fraught with anxiety, but possibilities which have the potential to make one´s life better, if not the best it can be.

They arrived with no intentions or plans to buy land and build a hotel, to make this place, this nothing village with a population of less than 200 indigena mountain farmers, their home. But because of their philosophy--which at the time they didn´t even know was their philosophy--to think widely, to focus on the positives of problems and find solutions rather than hiding behind the obstacles these problems presented, to be stewards of the land--they discovered that they had ended up, by chance or by some divine, unconscious design, exactly where they were supposed to be. And then they seized upon this crazy dream of an opportunity to buy land in a foreign country, to lay down roots in a community which had never seen the likes of them before, to "own their work," to work endless hours, to chance together and commit themselves to a dream they maybe never thought they had. They pushed beyond difficulties, beyond the anxiety and the fear and the unknowns that usually find us coming up with reasons why we shouldn´t or couldn´t do something, rather than looking for reasons why we should and could. They took an enormous risk that had no guarantees of happiness or success, except the guarantee that they could look at each other, and at themselves, knowing that at the very least, they had tried.

Well, The Black Sheep Inn is an enormous success, and Andres and Michelle, since married, have changed the face of Chugchilan in only positive ways. It is still very poor
but they have provided new employment opportunities to the community. Other locally owned hostels have opened up in their wake. They use local guides for horseback riding and hiking, setting a standard of payment and service which in other places is so often abused and manipulated. A cooperative transportation network has evolved, providing much needed income to those in the community who have a truck, and much needed transport to those travelers who rarely do.

The entire structure of the hotel is sustainable, built from local materials like adobe mud brick and straw, without depleting natural resources. They have composting toilets from which they fertilize numerous vegetable gardens and tracts of land where they are reforesting with native species of trees. In the combination greenhouse-bathrooms, you wash
your hands with biodegradable soap purchased in Quito, and rainwater that has been collected on the roof and stored in a cistern. Those sinks then drain into flower gardens in the bathroom which also thrive from solar heat through transparent roofs. Ducks and chickens eat the excess insects which come from the composting, and the eggs they lay are used in the cooking. All meals are organically vegetarian, harvested primarily from BSI's land, and they are delicious! Breakfast and dinner are served family style around a big, rustic farm table in the main lodge, bringing all the guests together where stories are shared, ideas exchanged, laughter erupts, and wine flows.

Every light bulb is low energy wattage and they are hard at work to get off the main electric grid by turning to alternative energy sources like solar and hydroelectric power. They recycle EVERYTHING! The walls of the shower are ¨bottle walls¨made up entirely of used soda, beer and wine bottles, and anything they can´t reuse on site (like paper, empty wine cartons, used tea bag wrappers, all of which feed the fires of their woodburning stoves), they personally take to Quito for further processing. There is more, so much more, like all the donations of funds, books, supplies, electronics, and appliances they have donated to the local school and clinic, or the programs they run with volunteers to teach computers to locals, or the workshops they´ve held on permaculture to educate, encourage and assist other families to preserve their environment and improve their standard of living. They seem to have thought of everything, but continue to evolve, expand, teach and learn as time goes on.

The Black Sheep Inn is not simply a "hotel." It is an experience. It is an inspiration. It is a place where they are committed to doing right by the earth, by the community, and to leaving the land in a better state than when they found it."

This year during my stay at BSI, I was able to ask more deliberate questions of Michelle and Andres, hoping they'd share with me a little bit of their wisdom and creative ideas. I was given a book from which they culled design information for their "gray water" filter--one they built themselves with charcoal, rocks, screens and reeds. I found out about "red worm casings," where to buy these lombris, and how they help make composting low maintenance. I hope to experiment with some of these new ideas at one of the farms
I'm visiting in the next couple of weeks, for the most important thing I learned at BSI is that these sustainable and eco-sound ideas are done with little if any "high-tech" gadgets or gear. These are all relatively simple, homemade, creative and innovative ways of protecting the only planet we'll ever have--one we've already done a terrifying job of screwing up. There are elements in every one of BSI's eco-schemes that we could and should employ in our own homes and in our own daily lives.

At night, after the clouds have settled and it is clear, the sky dims to lavender and trees stand in black silhouette, tall and silent, surrounding The Inn and bathed in this ethereal glow. They are pillars rising as evidence of a commitment to replenish, sustain and protect the natural world. The clouds, the sky, the colors, the mountains, even the compost toilets: I just take it in with all of my senses, even that tricky one which no one can ever really explain, wondering how the place and the land will come to live inside of me and what will emerge from its planting.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A 3rd World Bitch Slap Will Open Your Eyes

"True and serious traveling is no pastime, but is as serious as the grave." --Theroux
"There are no thieves in Ecuador. Only professionals." --Fellow Backpacker

The Linda I knew one year ago would have left. She would have paid to change her ticket and departed a week early. The Meghan I knew one year ago would have convinced her to. Why? Well, on her second day here in this fabulous little country, Linda was robbed by some fabulously talented (perhaps invisible) thieves. We were on a bus to Baños, a route targeted by thieves as it is the tourist destination in the country. I knew this. I was prepared. I gave my lecture about taking special care of her bag. And though Linda had her feet on her daypack the entire trip, they got in anyway, and removed her wallet. Just her wallet, without disturbing anything else in her bag, let alone us, as we chatted and laughed and reunited during the 4 hour journey.

We didn't discover the theft until much later that night, after she was alerted by American Express (god bless 'em) to suspected fraudelent activity on her card. That night was rough. We spent 45 minutes on the phone to the US (and, ironically, India) as she called to cancel her cards, and were informed the thieves had gone Christmas shopping immediately. At that point, the greatest loss was her beloved and handsome wallet and about $160 in cash. I had her passport and most of her cash strapped to my calf, and so once we joked about it and wished the thieves a Merry Christmas, she was really no worse for the wear, only a little bit wiser about the adept skills of Ecuadorian thieves.

Then, 4 days later, after a series of foiled plans, missed reservations, a bout of food poisoning, a headcold, several too-long, arduous, heinous bus rides, and a cold night spent in the Guayaquil bus terminal, the shit really hit the fan. We'd arrived at our first beach stop, one with zero sun and plenty of wind and rain, and on our second night Linda discovered that the checkbook she'd also lost, to which I said, "Oh, no worries, they can't do anything with that here!," had been opened and used, to the tune of nearly $7,000 in forged checks. Cashed no problema at a bank in Quito. Yeah, if we thought the night of the lost credit cards was rough, we were completely unprepared to deal with this on a Sunday night before Christmas. It was kinda meltdown central, but oddly more for me than for her. She needed me to be "a rock" and I was more like ugly mud. I was so angry, so frustrated, so sad, and felt guilty, responsible, all of those things. Linda had trusted me to take care of her, in a way, and though of course she didn't blame me, I blamed myself in many ways, and then felt guilty for making the catastrophe "my" problem. We were terrible company for one another that night. Nothing could be resolved until the morning when she could call home and talk to someone knowledgable at her bank about what recourse she had. This was her life savings, and she wasn't sure if she would be culpable for not reporting the checks stolen, too.

Long story made a bit shorter, Linda was NOT responsible for any of it, and her funds were returned in just 48 hours. And as soon as we arrived at the second beach, on Christmas morning, the sun literally and figuratively came out. The last half of our two weeks together were wonderful. And I am so proud of her--for letting Ecuador strip her of all sense of security, for withstanding and weathering this giant, 3rd world bitch-slap, for allowing this place to consume her in a way neither of us were expecting, and in a way no one should be consumed, but then, for not only recovering, but for thriving despite all of this. Linda truly let herself be here. And she stayed.

I got to thinking it was like Ecuador--or the universal force masking as Ecuador-- was forcing Linda to vacate, in every sense, her life in New York. And I was forced, to see my traveling-self through a friend's eyes. In my over eagerness to show Linda how awesome this country is, how much I love love love it, I ended up even spoiling the scenery. Linda was just so tired and frustrated and angry, that she basically refused to even look out the windows during our ample hours on busses, to enjoy the bountiful and breathtaking scenry as it passed us by. I was too ambitious, and had I been a little more patient, taken a less frenzied approach to her trip here, we may have avoided at least some of the problems we had. I went from being the laid back traveler with no set itinerary, to a mad-cap dasher of a pseudo tour guide with busses to catch and schedules to keep.

I went into my camp counselor mode, my girl scout self. I planned to do and see and go too much. I was so intent on Linda seeing this country as I do, wanting her to love it the way I have come to love it. But how could she? Two weeks is just not enough time. Between the 13 hour plane ride to get here, the less-than peaceful dorm room accomodaton, the altitude, the culture shock, the language barriers, all of it, one needs time to adjust. And I forgot about that. But once we settled into the easy palm tree sway-rhythm of Mompiche's beach, the pace of everything changed. And finally, I think, I hope, Linda loved Ecuador, at least just a little bit

I now remind myself: less is more. Think small. Go slow. It is a good lesson for life everywhere.

Ultimately, what happened to Linda forced us to slow down. And, it forged us yet another bond, found us ending up closer together than where we'd started.

After I left her at Quito's airport on New Year's Eve morning, I caught another bus alongside the highway to head back up to Otavalo in order to celebrate the festivities with my friends. I sat on the right. This was an unconscious decision. Just flopped where I landed, trying to avoid falling over as the bus swerved wildly back onto the PanAmerican. During that drive, I saw, for the first time, Laguna San Pablo--the sacred lake, reputedly a portel to the center of the earth. People had been astonished when I told them I'd never seen it. "But, it's right there, out the window on the bus from Quito to Otavalo," they cried. Maybe I'd never sat on the right before, or maybe I just hadn't paid attention. As I watched it glisten in the late morning sun, I thought of Linda. I cried again, sad to suddenly be without my best friend. And I took stock of how, suddenly, again, my vision was different.

With Linda here, I was awakened to the ugly. I saw the struggle, the discomfort, the fear, the scary parts of traveling. I was more conscious of how long a bus ride could be, how noisy, how bumpy. I couldn't sleep soundly, as I normally do, when we were in a dorm-room hostel. I heard every noise. I even shushed people! Wanting Linda to have a good night's sleep. I was paranoid about our bags being stolen from beneath the bus. (Never before have I jumped off, mid-ride, to check the undercarriage, making the controllador open the hatch so I could be certain our luggage was secure. With Linda, I did just that.) I mean, I knew all of this, but my awareness of these details were intensely hightened while trying to "take care" of my new traveling partner. I don't mean to say Linda needed special caring for, but it's like when you play one of your favorite songs for someone who's never heard it before. You loved it, enough to share it, but suddenly, with a new set of ears hearing it, you become conscious of how it might not be so great. "Is that chorus too cheesy? Does it repeat the same phrase too much? Is the beat annoying? The lyrics cliche? Do they like it?" You begin to doubt what you were so sure you loved. That was how I felt about Ecuador. "Is the scenery not as stunning as I'd thought? Are those clouds just like the clouds at home and not some supernatural phenomenon like I'd thought? Does she like it?" I have stopped doubting my love for Ecuador. It is as amazing as I believe. And I will never doubt my love for Linda. She helped me see.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Africa Revisited

Saturday, 8 December 2007

So, I hauled out to this town , San Lorenzo, at the northernmost tip of coastal Ecuador, despite many telling me I shouldn't go, that I would get "kidnapped by Colombians" and so on. I went anyway, as you might imagine I would. I don't know if my spirit has gotten bolder or stupider as time has passed, but my luck has remained so well in tact that I feel blindingly confindent about being able to go wherever, whenever I want.

I arrived in San Lorenzo in the mid morning after 4 and half hours on a bus descending from the high mountains of the sierra through the dense, wet, tropicalish cloudforests of the lowlands, passing banana plantations and groves of palm oil trees, cacao and pineapple, to emerge in a dusty, dirty, chaotic fishing town. I worked my way from the bus to the dock where I first came into contact with coastal Spanish. Much, much different from that of the altiplano. Couldn't understand anything it seemed, even the cost of my fresh squeezed orange juice as I tried to replenish the sudden sweat loss that came from the sun and heat of the equatorial sun. And this after being all proud of my newly honed spanish language skills. It was like going to another country. Africa, to be exact. Suddenly, not only was there fierce sun and humid air, but everyone was black.

I knew this, of course. It was part of the reason I went. This is untouristed territory. The only person I've met who went there is this Belgian guy who also spent 6 months in the Colombian jungle. He was prepared.

From the dock I loaded myself and all my stuff onto a little canoe with an outboard motor and went zipping off into the open water where the Pacific meets some river estuary or something. Mangroves everywhere, their multi-branches penetrating the water in such a maze you couldn't tell which ones were descending from the tree, or sprouting up from the silt and sand. We were racing pelicans at one point, their large black sillhouettes flapping fiercely in the glare, keeping apace with our speed. Our first stop was some tiny, bleak outpost, little more than a dock and a sunburnt stall selling coconuts, where 10 naked black boys dove off the cement stairs into the water, unable to take their eyes off of me, the white blonde lady in the boat next to the crates of Coca Cola and Malta sodas being unloaded to stock up some unseen tienda. After picking up a few more passengers we fled to Limones, another dock at another tiny sandbar village, where I disembarked and waited in the sun, happy to stand and stretch my legs, while speaking in terribly broken spanish to the two "captains" of my boat. Answering questions about where I'm from, and how long a flight would be from New York to various other international locales. "How long is it from NY to China? To Japan? To Miami?" Having never been to any of these places, I could only answer, "No se. Depende."

Even though I was really thirsty, and really hot, in my long gringo sleeves and denim trousers, I refused offers of coconuts and their quenching juice. Why? I don't know. That weird apprehension, I guess, that comes with accepting any gift in a place where you don't the rules of gift giving. That, and the fact that I didn't know how long it would be until I could find myself in some semblance of a bathroom. Dehydrating by necessity.

After about an hour, wherein I was the main attraction, I boarded another boat and sailed off to La Tola. Remote by travellers standards, but at least connected to the rest of Ecuador by a road, albeit one of bumpy dirt. I had read that you could walk from La Tola to Olmedo, my destination, but as I peered down the road, through a shimmer of heat waves, I could see nothing but a girl pulling a baby boy on a flat piece of plastic. The reign, a piece of dingy rope, the boy naked. Beyond that, coconut palms and...nothing. I sought shelter and a moment to collect my land legs under the canopy of a comedora. I bought a diet coke and sucked it down thirstily, although now I was really ready and willing to drink from a coconut, regardless of rules. But oddly there were none. I asked how to get to Olmedo, and one person pointed in the direction of the sleigh driving girl, another told me of a bus. I didn't think I neeeded a bus, but was suddenly apprehensive, despite my aforementioned confident fearlessness, about walking through town, glowing white like a spotlight in a moonless night. It has been a long time since I was so bizarrely obvious in any place.

I waited for the bus. When it came, I got on board only to be let off less than 3 minutes later. And that was a 5 minute walk PAST the entrance to the village. As I hiked back in the direction the controllador had pointed, I came upon a locked gate that seemed to lead only to a noisy grinding silo of sorts. Then out of nowhere, a man in a pickup appeared. He asked where I was going. Anyone would have. I mean, look at me, if you can in your mind: a lone white girl with a heavy load on a dusty road in the middle of Afro-Ecuadorian nowhere. I got in, and he drove me through the proper entrada and deposited me amidst even more curious stares at the foot of a footbridge. There was supposed to be a hostal in the village, an eco-tourist endeavor, a cooperativa run by a group of women. "La Hostal?" I asked. People pointed with a curving motion of their arms over the bridge. I climbed up a plank and manuevered my way across a rocking, creaking piece of construction. At the other side, I swear to you, it was Apam, Ghana. It was that little muddy, dusty, litter-strewn and loving village where I lived in coastal west Africa. It was amazing. I had returned to Africa, somehow, by way of Ecuador. The moment I crossed the bridge I was embraced in a multitude of literal and figurative ways by the people that lived there.

Sometimes the immediate pleasure lies solely in the arrival. This is especially true when the journey is long, difficult, and confusing. A journey and an arrival I fretted about. One I feared. One I worried I would not make. One I was so relieved to have achieved. Just the arrival. I waited on the veranda of a beautifully constructed, if completely out of place, wooden hostel on stilts at the waters edge. Every other building around me was made of warping, blanched wood and deteriorating concrete. Windows were mere tiny open holes. Everything raised above the damp, sandy, watery earth. Families of 7, 8, 9 or more lived in one room separated only by curtains of thinning cloth. After meeting Sobeida, a grandmother or dozens and jefa of the cooperativa, I dropped my luggage on my bed, untucked a tank top from my pack, and went about seeing the village.

I was immediately met by a group of young children, 3 of them related to Sobeida. Marcial, Yuleici, and Harinson, who would come to be known to me affectionately as Hachi, and their mom, Marcia. I complimented Marcia's pedicure, all pink and cute little polka dots, fading on worn weather beaten toenails. "My daughter," she said. "You want?" Now? Yes, now. And so, looking down at the worn patchy red of a long ago New York pedicure on my own feet, I went with her to their house where Yuleici painted my toes by dimming light, creating the most perfect multicolored detailed butterflies on my busted up toes. She was 16. Cut the tips of her nailpolish brushes herself, making them fine and precise. All of this while sitting on their torn and stuffing-less sofa under a poster of Shakira, hips a-shaking, while the youngest, 6 years old, fried me some plantains and peeled me an orange. No money was ever asked for. When I left, I wrote Yuleici a note and enclosed a five dollar bill. Telling her, "For more colors." I had seen her drawings in a little notebook, they were really good, and her mother spoke of wanting to send her to colegio in another, larger, better town. But of course, there is no money. God how I hate that this story lives again and again, and all I can do is write sweet notes in purple ink and leave $5 in my wake.

The children claimed me as though I was a prize to be won. I shared my dinner with them, rice and fish. I took Harinson with me on my canoe tour the next day, and when he got to steer the boat, a smile ripping across his face from ear to adorable ear, I took a picture to preserve that memory of his simple, singular joy in being included in a rare adventure. I went crabbing in the morning with the grandmother and then ate those self same crabs we caught with lemon for our dinner in a tiny kitchen while I tried, tried so hard, to understand the stories she spun for me. I gave my guide my compass, though he asked for more, much more. We shared kisses under my mosquito net, but I could give him no direction other than a little grey green metal circle of north and south and east and west.

No one called me Obruni. Only Maggie.

Friday, December 14, 2007

About Friends

"You don't have to go. I know, you know, you know. But if you gotta go, safe travels." --Peter and the Wolf, from Linda Feldman's Ecuador Mix, given to me the night before my departure.

Someone wrote me and said he's beginning to think my entire trip is about llamas and volcanoes. Well, he actually wasn't that far off the mark. I have spent nearly the entirety of my past 11 weeks in the northern and central sierra, Ecuador's Andes--host to llamas and volcanoes aplenty.

I have been living and working between 6,000 and 12,000 feet. My shoulders and face have freckled in the equatorial sun, but my legs have been ensconsed in rubber boots and knee high socks, and at night I am wrapped in wool and alpaca. Blankets, sweaters, scarves, the lot of them. Sometimes, all of them. But now, that is about to change. Sort of.

On Monday, Linda arrives from New York. Though we will spend about a week overall in the mountains, our shared goal is the beach. First, I am forcing her to ride some white water on a raft in one of Ecuador's many rivers. I am also taking her to both The Tungurahua Tea Room and to Misi Wasi so she, too, can experience llamas and volcanoes. But we are both looking forward to shedding clothes and swatting mosquitoes while lounging in the sun, eating fresh catch cevche from a triciclero beachside, and drinking tropical batidos--milkshakes of banana, coconut and pineapple, mango--adorned with a salad of fruits on the rim for breakfast, and sipping capirhiñas at sunset...or earlier. Who can wait for sunset?

The last time I visited Ecuador, in 2005, I went to the beach in July. Our summer, their winter. I searched for sun during my week, even forcing the two girls I was with to follow my hairbrained idea of leaving one beach in the south to go to one ABOVE the equator, where I rationalized it was still another hemisphere, and thus, another season. Um, I was wrong. Our search was fruitless. We only got stuck in a road strike and spent a full day on busses trying to work our way around it. We ended up in Atacames, but still "suffered" only warm, cloudy days, and one insanely reckless whale-watching excursion that involved shoddy lifejackets and a speedboat "captained" by a barefoot teenager balancing on the bow and shouting "Mira! Mira! Siga! Siga!" as we tore through the Pacific like modern day harpooners "hunting" humpbacks. But now, the end of December is approaching High Season for sun, surf (surfers!) and sand. So I will be liberally applying sunscreen hoping to lessen, with caution, the blinding white glare of my scabby and bruised lower body.

I am overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude as I anxiously await Linda's arrival. The fact that she has made the financial investment to come here and visit me is a most amazing Christmas gift. She is also acting as my "mule," carting down here a new stock of supplies (books, babywipes, SPF, saline solution, etc...) to replenish my waning stash. My parents have mailed her part of this carepack and I am immensely grateful to them as well, for hunting up an Argentina guide book and an electric voltage converter for my trips south after Ecuador. Linda is bearing this burden and bringing me all of this in her bulging pack. She's also taken time out of her life to search out some much desired books I've been wanting on Permaculture and South American politics. I am so constantly reminded of how blessed I am to have such incredible friends and family.

Perhaps most crucial is that Linda will be here with me when I move from the 12th into the 13th week of traveling, marking the longest period I've ever dared to be away from home. Having one of my absolute best friends by my side as I maneuver this odd, momentous, life-hump, is more that I ever could have hoped for.

As I was planning this trip for much of last year, she would joke about coming to visit, as many of my friends did. But she really meant it! And she has found a way to make it happen. I know it is damn near impossible for most people to find the money and the time to make such a trip, and really, my time here isn't about just going to the beach with my friends from home. But this--Linda coming--this is special for both of us. She will be my Christmas angel, my Hannukah blessing, my New Year's wish. I will get to watch her as she wonders at this little country that has captured my heart and astonished my imagination. She will be my companion, my girl talk, my co-conspirator, my dance partner, my sunscreen slatherer, my lookout, my wingwoman, my family. No llama can do all of that. I hope to be all of that for her, too.

I am so thankful, not only for her coming, but for her in general. At 23 this will be her first trip to the "3rd World". She will be stepping outside of her comfort zone, outside of the rectilineal 'hood in Brooklyn that we are both in love with, but that we also both need to leave now and again. She is daring to embrace discomfort and unanswerable questions and I am so proud of her, and so thrilled to be her witness.

We have had a frenzied and fabulous and somewhat tumultuous friendship that has changed both of us in unforseen and confusing ways in just 2 years. All of this makes her coming even more incredible and deepens my love for and gratitude towards her. We keep on figuring out how to love and trust each other even though we can both be difficult in our own ways. We have tested each other's capacity for patience and forgiveness. I think Linda may have taught me more about "relationships" than any boyfriend ever has.

When we moved in together in the summer of last year, friends of ours, unbeknownst to us, made bets--with real money!--as to how long it would last. Like a Hollywood wedding, or as though our lives and our friendship were some sort of joke. We did make it the whole year, but I think sometimes we survived out of defiance to each other, ourselves, and our wagering friends. And we were both a bit relieved--yet sad--when that year was over. Our friends, I believe, were relieved, too. They got to stop listening to us complain! But our survival and definace has bonded us in a way I can't say I have with any other human being on earth. There were dismal moments during that year of co-habitation when I couldn't imagine we'd even remain friends, let alone that she'd be spending a whollop of money on airfare and her whole 2 weeks of yearly vacation time to come backpack around Ecuador with me.

I have written and spoken about the blessings that come from the challenge of travelling alone, but man oh man, it is an amazing gift, something to cherish beyond description, to create memories in a foreign place with a friend from home. Meeting new people, strangers, and travelling with them is phenomenal, but to know there is someone from your "real life" who will actually see some of what you've seen, with whom you can re-live those days you spent together in a world other than your own, someone who "gets it" when you describe a bus ride or a view, and someone with whom you, and no one else, can share those memories--it is far more special than I have words for here at this time.

Bienvenidos, Linda. Mi linda Linda. Y gracias, por el pasado y el futuro. Viaje con cuidado. Te amo.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

On The Move

"You lived in the mountains as if cupped in a puzzle of unclimbable blue ridges and uncrossable gorges. To travel through that place, you needed to know not only where you wanted to go but also that roundabout was often the only way to get there." --Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons.

Well, I have left Misi Wasi, the last farm I was working on, a week earlier than originally intended. The reasons shall not be made known in this forum. Suffice it to say I had some needs that could not be met, and some beliefs that could not be compromised. However, make no mistake, my three weeks high in the puzzle of unclimbable mountains above Otavalo were an incredible experience. Michaela went to great lengths to provide a comfortable home for her volunteers, complete with luxurious bedding and private rooms, a fireplace, hot showers and delicious vegan food. I planted over 40 trees and shrubs, tended to a burgeouning green house where I transplanted leafy greens like Chinese Mustard, Chard and Mesculun. I became acquainted for the first time with the concept of Lunar Farming, used by indigenous socities all over the world for centuries, dating as far back, maybe even farther, as the Incas. I learned how to use power tools when I built a door for her composting toilets, and also became familiar once again with good old fashioned hacksaws, hammer and nails. I made friends with llamas, and with young men from California and the UK. I even tried my hand at making tortillas.

Part of the impetus to leave early was the fact that I had to appear in "court" as a witness to a kind of crime, perpetrated against my friend Cherie who owns the cafe in Otavalo. One Sunday morning, at 7am, while she and I and her daughter, Sasha, were all sleeping, 2 young men busted down the door to the cafe in a drunken stupor, insisting on seeing Sasha. The ringleader was Sasha's exboyfriend. I woke to hear Cherie yelling and then some loud crashing as they threw several of her cafe benches into the courtyard and she then duly beat them with a stick until they went running out the door. I saw them from my window as they made their stumbly escape. I appeared in front of the sherrif twice, giving my testimony in English, which was then translated into Spanish by Cherie's lawyer who spent nearly 10 years in New York. In the end there was a victory, though it was unsatisfactory to all of our standards. Hiro had to pay a fine of $50. A hefty sum by Ecuadorian standards, but surely not good enough to teach this dirtbag a lesson. Cherie is concerned about future trouble. But next time...he goes to jail. I think Cherie is actually looking forward to another chance to beat him with a stick.

The day before our final testimony, I came down off the mountain to spend the day with Deb and Bob in Cotacachi. They are the American couple who hosted me for Thanksgiving. I adore them both. They treat me like a daughter in some ways, but as a friend in most others. Not only did I get to luxuriate in a steaming hot bathtub under a moonlit skylight, and sleep under 2 down comforters, they also treated me to dinner at La Mirage, a Relais-Chateaux restaurant in the middle of an Ecuadorian village. This French distinction is given to a select few restaurants around the world, and is better than what we know to be "5 Star." Not only is it the nicest restaurant in all of Ecuador, it is thus one of the best in all the world, and certainly the nicest I have ever been to in all my life. To get there, we walked down a grass and dirt road, having to move a cow out of the path at one point. It was the Dirt Road to the Five Stars. And despite the grand and elegant nature of the restaurant, part of the larger hacienda which serves as a hotel and spa, I was still able to wear my dirty jeans and sport sandals. God love Ecuador. Our amuse bouche, or pre-appetizer, was a music box. A hand carved music box. Three indigenous women in full dress appeared and placed the wooden boxes down in front of us at the same time, and then simultaneously lifted the lid. I had a goat cheese tartlette with carmelized onions set to the theme of Ice Castles.

Two nights later I found myself sitting alone in a flourescent lit dormitory room in the tiny and silent town of La Esperanza, eating avocado smeared on bread with my swiss army knife. The contrasts speak for themselves, but what is most interesting is that I was equally happy in both situations.

La Esperanza is a town comprised of one long cobbled road leading up to the base of Volcan Imbabura. On either side of the road are houses, behind which are steep fields of green sloping down into the river valley. These fields are famous for possessing a microclimate perfect for growing magical mushrooms. In the 1970´s La Esperanza, and a woman named Aida who owns the only hostal in the area, made names for themselves with the hippies of the world. Including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joan Baez, and many others. Go to Casa Aida and she'll show you the notebooks she has full of everyone's names. I went with Sasha to see the town and to do an entirely different kind of farming for one day. We made out like a couple of hippie bandits. The mushrooms are easily identifiable, growing out of dried up splats of cow manure and sporting a gleaming, metallic top, in either gold or dark bronze. They have a "skirt" or little black ruffle in the middle of their stem, and they wrinkle and go purple or iridescent turquoise when picked. Even though they are a legal commodity here in Ecuador, the people of La Esperanza do not harvest or sell them, and so we were able to walk freely onto a huge, flat field at the end of a long grassy lane and pick freely of the bounty. Though Sasha enjoyed some of our harverst immediately, I was content to pick and search and gather, and to lie in the grass and look at the psychadelic surroundings--mushrooms not necessary.

La Esperanza was on my way from the farm to the coast--which is my next destination. Having decided to leave Misi Wasi, I was left with nearly 2 weeks before my friend Linda arrives from New York. Now that I've been in the mountains for 10 weeks, my skin is dry and whiter than it was when I left New York. I am yearning for some humidity and moisture and water that is not still in the middle of a mountain lake. Tomorrow morning I will leave Ibarra, the provincial capital of the Northern Sierra, and a town I explored today on foot, spending hours walking up and down and in and out of their palm tree lined plazas and central squares marked by grand cathedrals and butterscotch colored municipal buildings. From here I will head to San Lorenzo, the northernmost coastal town in Ecuador, an ill-advised crossing point into the lowlands of Colombia. When I went to buy my ticket to San Lorenzo, everyone I asked or told of my destination repeated the name with a quizzical look. "San Lorenzo?" Si, San Lorenzo. "Porque?" Their shock and concern is not solely because San Lorenzo is a rarely-touristed area. Many tell me it's dangerous, which, by virtue of being a frontier town, and this frontier on the edge of Colombia, it may well be. But much of the reputation is based only on the fact that San Lorenzo is "El pueblo de Negros." People are surprised I am going there not just because I am a tourist, but because I am white. San Lorenzo is in the heart of the Afro-Ecuadorian community, a community severely marginalized by the rest of Ecuador. Some things, no matter where you go, never change.

Now, before you go getting all worried, I'm not planning to hang out there. I'm catching a morning boat from the river port, taking it two-and-a-half hours south through the scarce remaining tangled mangrove forests of Ecuador's coast and lowlands. (I leave the puzzle of the unclimbable mountains for a maze of salt water vegetation.) After that, I will go by foot through one village to another, where there is a cooperativa-hostal run by a group of enterprising Afro-Ecuadorian women. It stands on stilts in the tidal pools and from there they can arrange canoe-excursions into deeper mangroves. I have never seen this part of Ecuador, and am insatiably curious. The Afro-Ecuadorian population is pretty much relegated to the Esmereldas province, but most of it is quickly by-passed for the beach resorts further south. I plan to take a little bit of time in this less travelled place before heading to the beach. And yes, the beach is where I will end up. More news soon from the mellow surf of the pacific.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Journal Entries, October 25th, 26th 2007

And the story begins with a cleansing--a period of sobriety that exists on many different planes. Being present. Sleeping when it's dark. Waking in the light and walking and being silent, alone. Adjusting--relocating to a new frame of mind, not just a new place. Starting to occupy a different life, and now the constraints aren't easier or better, but necessary, and different. Welcome.

The Calendrio Agricola Lunar of 2007 tells me the "energetic sensibilities" are high today. Apparently this is a good thing. The day did find me with enough energy and sense to pen a letter to Rachel after a day in sun and dirt. I think of her belly swelling with new life and how I am not there to see it. I think of Cooper and his strawberries and how they rival the berries growing here. I miss them. Now that Freebird has taken off into a new era of flight, Rachel has no computer, no email. Being forced to write with ink and paper is hardly a disaster, but I have no return address...

After a week at the base of magestic and dormant Cotopaxi, I am now in a verdant valley below the black and active Volcan Tungurahua. It last erupted in 2005, covering the towns on the other side of Baños with ash and rubble and shutting down tourism in this tourist town. She makes noise every day, puffing out huge dark plumes of smoke that rise to mix with the clouds. I awake every morning to find my things covered in a fine, black grit and sometimes the pink and red petals of the dahlias are covered in it, too. Last night I saw magma spurt from the mouth and light up the sky, falling to the slope and crackling black and orange as it cooled. I wonder if I should tell Mom and Dad...

I arrived here at my first "farm" just 5 days ago and already my hands have taken on a greenish-yellow tint and the dirt under my nails seems permenant, but I'm enjoying every minute of it--the weeding, gathering volcanic stones that Tungurahua resupplies every day, harvesting cabbage, carrots, chard and lemons just a few feet from my bedroom door with which to prepare my meals. I gather mint and oregano and lemongrass for tea. I boil water to drink. I am the only volunteer here for now, and so my days are spent in a Spanish world, working with Mario and Don Victor, who is 97 years old and still wielding a machete and caring tenderly for young lettuces. At night I am alone save for the rhino beetles, the rumbling of the volcano, the rustling of cane grass and the whipping of tattered banana palms in the wind. I make tea. I write. I retire early. All of this is welcome, as my head had gotten so overwhelmed there in NY--too much of too much. No clear space in which to think, not even in my head, and so I'm happy for this quiet solitude

Today was my day to make lunch for the "crew" and I prepared a chicken soup, complete with feet--a first for me. I did not eat them, for it was enough to cook them. They kept sticking up out of the pot like a bad Chinatown joke. I am proud of these lunches, and of my creative culinary experiments with things called Camote and Papa Chino.

It was humbling to realize I'd come here to farm and yet couldn't tell a weed from a plant. But I have learned. I have learned that carrots need little water, gentle earth cover, and lots of sun. Cilantro on the other hand needs very moist ground and plenty of shade. Clover secures nitrogen to the soil and can be sown as a natural fertilizer that has the added bonus of being beautiful and smelling delicious. Potatos grow by planting potatos, leeks by planting the ends of leeks, but still no one can tell me where to find the seeds on a carrot.

Conversations with Carol have been incredibly rewarding. Women like her, and Cherie (my hippie in Otavalo), offer me an understanding of how Ecuador moves, and how it has changed, in a language I can understand. They are like key masters, opening up doors that would otherwise remain closed. Thier knowledge is invaluable to me. Were I just playing tourist I would never get this--these relaxed moments at the end of a day where worlds of understanding unexpectedly unfold. One likes wine, the other walnut leaf tea. There it was a darkening garden cafe in a city, here it is a darkening garden in the mountains. I speak with Carol while lemonade cools on the stovetop, and leftover soup from lunch awaits me for dinner. Here a conversation meanders, it is not an interview or an interrogation, and it winds its way from talk of dogs and medicinal plants to politics and history.

Despite our language barriers, Mario and I have developed a rhythm of work and play. We struggle along, but we are also able to joke with each other, though sometimes I wonder if we're both just laughing because I have no idea what is going on! The work day is short when measured in hours. We begin between 7:30 and 8:00, work until Noon, depending on which one of us is making lunch, for then we get to stop at 11:00. We eat and then "siesta" or rest until 1:00. Then it's just two more hours until quitting time. On my first day I hoped for hot water in my much needed shower, but found myself luxuriating under the frigid spray regardless. It is as cold showers are: bracing, rejuvinating, a reminder that you're no longer at home. And right now, this is fine by me.