Intag– the cloud forest

Last Saturday morning, all 18 of us, plus two directors, climbed on a bus and started out on the 5 hour journey to Intag, a region in the Northwestern province of Imbabura, Ecuador. By far, the best part of the long, bumpy, and windy bus ride was when the bus stopped at a seemingly random point on the road, and Fabian told us he had something to show us… As I, of course, was needing a pee break, I was happy to get off the bus and see what was there. After, I happily admitted it was probably the best pee I have had, ever. Maybe– that’s a tough call. But, this was my view:

Yes, we had stumbled upon Laguna Cuicocha, a crater lake named for its guinea pig shaped island in the middle — Guinea Pig Lake. I have yet to eat guinea pig, but more and more its reverence within the Andean culture comes to light. Perhaps soon?

Then, we continued on to Intag, delayed by a small tree sliding down a muddy hillside, holding our breath as we bumped around some treacherous curves (cliffs, no guard rail, no big deal), and finally arriving at a school, from which we began out ~1 hour trek to La Florida, our beautiful home for the following days.

Our host, an American ex pat who has lived in Ecuador for more than 30 years, greeted us with a wonderful lunch– all of it grown on site, or taken from the neighbors’ cows. To be short, the food was amazing: fresh, vegetable full, legumes, PANCAKES, fruit, coffee, etc. etc. I should have been more proactive with the picture taking of these beautiful meals, but instead I was too concentrated on consumption. In this case, I could not get over how delicious it was. Later that weekend, we got a tour of the garden, saw the coffee plants, the pineapple, bananas, tomate de arbol (tree tomato), zanahoria blanca (white carrot), lettuce, the chicken, the papayas. Literally, right in the backyard. I had been walking through the garden for the past few days, but had not noticed all of the food growing, due to the way other vegetation was mixed in with the fruits and veggies. For example, one day for lunch we had some delicious lentils, fried sweet plantains, rice, some sort of steamed greens (collards?), and delicious juice. I was a very happy camper. Also, after every meal we drank coffee, served with hot, fresh milk. After not having had milk (or at least not too much) for the past year, I couldn’t believe how amazing this milk tasted! Usually, I am completely satisfied with black coffee, but I had to admit to myself that this fresh from the cow business was pretty worth putting into my fresh from the tree coffee– especially as I was tempted to drink cup after cup at night.

Can I say it again? –the meals were amazing. And, I have found a picture of the lettuce, by far the most obvious crop, as it had to be protected from all the rain!

The rest of the first day, we had time to move into our accommodations, awesome cabins with no electricity, but candles and a sink! Also, beds with 4 layers of thick wool blankets. My kind of heaven. In the outdoors, we had a composting bamboo outhouse that was actually very pleasant, as outhouses go. At night, we played cards by candlelight (as romantic as it sounds…) and generally had an awesome time together, especially because I felt like I was right back at home at summer camp.

We had time to explore. Delve into these amazing forests, with trails winding all through them. After staring at the clouds forever, I had a hard time deciphering whether the clouds were coming down onto the green mountains, or were the mountains rising up in the clouds? It was a magical land, I was at once transported to the age of the dinosaurs (think giant ferns), Avatar (floating mountains), Nicaragua (humidity, heavy rains), and, probably, my dreams. It was absolute tranquility, to sit quietly and listen– no longer silent. Bird calls from every direction, the comforting white noise of a waterfall, murmurs of voices travelling through the green, the occasional dog bark. Once again, I felt the tranquility of life moving all around me, as I had the privilege to sit and observe it all. This time, I was not at a baptism surrounded by a huge family speaking Spanish, but it was another alternate reality in which I could partake.

Here is one small idea of the incredible world of the cloud forest:

I learned so very much about the forest, partly through instruction, and partly through observation. I learned how to differentiate between orchids and other trickster plants, which tree’s “blood” one can use for sunscreen, how to successfully hike for four hours in rubber boots, why some trees have “plantas epífitas” and others do not (moss, lichens, bromeliads), and so much more. One morning, we had a guided nature hike by a man named Roberto, and his 12 year old son, who lived  just up the hill, and other times to explore on our own. Some friends and I were lucky enough to head down to the waterfall at dusk, around 6:30, and happened to spot an amazing red bird perched up in the trees, right next the waterfall. Yes, it was the Andeans cock of the rock (el gallito de la peña), the famous birds we had been warned about! Apparently, bird watchers from all over the world “flock” to the cloud forests of the Andes to see this funky looking guy. It was indeed an exciting moment to spot him– the birdwatching thrill!

Besides all the exploring, we had a few “charlas,” talks. In particular, two representatives of DECOIN, an anti-mining organization, came to relate to us their important work in campaigning against the mining companies that have threatened the Intag area for the past 20 years. Intag is rich in copper, populated by campesinos (farmers) and thus an attractive place for transnational mining companies to strike. However, Intag is also rich in biodiversity, water, people (pop. 15,000) who have lived off the land for the generations after generation. Although many would see these people as living in poverty, their reality is the opposite, living off the richness of the land. In addition to destroying the livelihood of these people, mining would lead to great deforestation and contamination of water.

One of the leaders of DECOIN referred to Ecuador as “el país como un pulmón,” the country as a lung, as it provides oxygen to the world with its immense forests. After having learned about extractive industries in class, it was very powerful to speak with local leaders of Intag, and the struggles they have had to face, death threats included. Metals certainly are a serious issue, as our reliance on technology continues…

In all, our 3 days in Intag flew by, were a wonderful respite from suburban lifestyle and daily classes, a much needed opportunity to take in the natural world and connect again with the amazing people on this journey. Quoting Kenny, our team cheerleader (self-proclaimed), “ECUADOR 20-12!!”

A quick update on the daily life, la vida cotidiana: I am back in Los Chillos for only one more week, 5 more days of Spanish class, and then we go off to the Oriente (Amazon region) before our next homestay in Quito begins! El tiempo pasa volando… time certainly does fly! I love my life here in the valley, but am definitely itching for a little more adventure, some big city life to come. Although, now I must take advantage of all the tranquility I have. This weekend, I may or may not be attending a soccer game, going to a dog show type thing, or to some amazing waterfalls nearby. As of now, I am unsure, but totally willing to go with flow and hang out with my awesome family in the short time we have left. Seriously, I can’t get over the fact that I’m gone in a week!

For now, love and peace of mind, what I try to wish to myself and others everyday!

Mass and a Baptism: my current religiosities

Thus far, my religious experiences in Ecuador have totalled two: la misa y un bautiso. Or, mass and a baptism.

That is, in addition to being asked about my religion or my family’s religion– which is often one of the first questions Ecuadorians will ask you, simply out of curiosity, I believe. The same flies for politics, sex (relationship status), and money– or so we were told in our first week here. It pretty much proves to be true. Topics that at once seemed to be taboo or private are now the first things people know about me, and in some ways, it lets down a barrier that allows for conversation to move through these topics, and on to smaller or bigger or more important/everyday things. Personal questions, check. Now, who really are you?

It’s a whole new reality. Who am I really, speaking Spanish? Just “una gringa”? For one, I’m not who I am in English.

As for the mass, I too went out of curiosity, to know more about the religiosity of the country in which I am living, in which I see a religiosity intertwined, intricately, with the cultures of Catholicism and indigenous religions. In addition, growing populations of Mormons and Evangelicals in most parts of the country contribute to this amorphous religious dynamic.

Walking into mass, I had no idea what to expect, but it was easy enough to follow along. The service was short, around 45 minutes, and I stood and sat, stood and sat, with my host parents, on a bench near the back of the church. It was simple, and rather beautiful, to watch faith in action. I took the opportunity to zone out the Spanish, and reflect as I watched others responding and acting out their faith to their own accord. I listened to the call and response of the Padre and the people, and watched as most people formed a line to take communion. In general, the atmosphere was relaxed and open. I felt surprised by the variation in attire– from the track suit my host father wore, to everyday jeans and t shirt, to a skirt and heels.

Later, I told Gladys how this surprised me, and she responded quite simply: God doesn’t care what you look like on the outside, only on the inside. I took this to be true, and then paused to wonder about the formality (at least, my own perception of formality) of churchgoers in the United States. In Ecuador, church is not a social event, as I had often thought of it before. Mass was “cortita,” short and sweet, slipping into the back, and then quietly leaving at the end. The most interaction was in giving “la paz,” shaking hands and kissing cheeks while wishing those around you peace. Peace, I gave gladly and accepted totally. My mind is peaceful here, and that I can appreciate.

Yesterday, the next Sunday, I went to the baptism of two babies that are now part of my host family’s extended family. I commented that the baptism was much like a wedding (at least, my perception of a wedding, having never attended one except as a one month old baby….), but my family assured me that no, no, weddings are much bigger, with much more people. I suppose this is true, but to me it already seemed to be a lot of people! No, no, this was just a family event.

The act of the baptism itself was very moving, taking place in the beautiful church pictured above, although I had little idea who was being baptized, or how my family was related to them. Even still, the ceremony of bringing new life into the world,  honoring the parents and godparents, and the idea of bringing the whole family together as a community to raise these new children, once again brought me into reflection about my unstable-established place in Ecuador, and my somewhat more stable place in other parts of the world. Honoring new life, I found myself able to appreciate my own ability to stand, however unstable, in any part of the world. At the end of the ceremony, as the babies were presented to the crowd a la Lion King, I once again found a sense of grounding, as I saw life continuing and changing around me, as I too am continuing and changing in this new place. I was so grateful my family brought me along to witness this event.

Of course, the religious ceremony was not the end of the baptism. It was followed by a 3 course meal + 2 more rounds of dessert, along with refilling glasses of champagne and wine. This, to me, seemed like the wedding part. With perhaps more of a baby theme. As in, lots of blue and pink.

The meal itself lasted 3+ hours, and then with an hour car ride home, I then learned not to put off my homework until Sunday, because I never really know what I’ll be doing. In my mind, I thought a baptism would last an hour or two, and then we would come home for lunch as usual. Boy, was I wrong! Round trip, the event of the baptism lasted 7 hours, and then I quickly moved on to all of my homework, “los deberes,” exhausted after a long day of sitting.

However, the baptism still lingers with me, as I followed the tradition and pocketed a bunch of candies and a piece of cake for later…  ¡Que lindos!

Oh, sugar. On a final note, after our three rounds of dessert at the baptism, we stopped for ice cream along the road… I was so full, but I couldn’t say no to a fresh taxo ice cream! I have no idea what kind of fruit it is, but it certainly is delicious.

With this, I wish you all “la paz,” and as it is now el día de San Valentin, I send love throughout the world. Just imagine you are eating those candies… True love. Especially the coconut-swan.

El correo… de caracol

Just in case any one feels like sending some good, old fashioned snail mail (¿correo de caracol?), here is my address:

 

Haverty Brown

Experimento de Convivencia Internacional

Hernando de la Cruz N31-37

Quito, Ecuador

 

Excellent. Your chances of receiving an Ecua-postal are very high if a foreign-postal makes its way down here, even if it does get lost in the mail– which I am lead to believe happens frequently.

Anyways, today was my third day of classes, my first time seeing snow in Ecuador (half of the mountains were visible this morning, but the peaks still clouded in! Even so, incredibly beautiful!), my first day vegetarian day with my semi-vegetarian family, and my first time putting popcorn in a soup. I highly recommend it, just like croutons! Oh, also my first time eating mayonaise flavored chips. Mostly, they were just salty, and not too mayonaise-y.

Indeed, I was in favor of mayonaise, for once.

A lovely day of firsts, seconds, and thirds.

¡El fin de semana con la familia Ugalde!

And what a weekend it has been, bookmarked by birthday parties.

I can’t say I was expecting this much celebration, but I also can’t say that I completely understood it was happening until a cake was presented with candles– and then I finally got the message that I was at a birthday party, my host dad’s, to be exact. The first of many things lost in translation. That was Friday night, my introduction to Ecuadorian familial life: the kids, grandparents, grandchildren, the neighbors, friends, and their dogs, too, of course. Needless to say, it was overwhelming, crazy, emotional, touching, and so much more… especially when the cake was served around midnight, and then my host dad, Fabian Sr.,  accidentally spilled his cake all over me. Then, all the emotions and exhaustion came together as one, and I started crying as much as I was laughing. Eventually, I pulled myself together and cleaned up my pants (with so much help from everyone else), ate my cake, and made it successfully to bed. In a way, it was exactly how I imagined my first day– emotional, draining, transitional, and with a great big family all around me. In another state of mind, I was hoping I wouldn’t cry on my first day, but I should have realized who I was talking to…

Of course, that was just one introduction to my new life with my host family. The other was absolutely wonderful in its own way, with everyone so kind, open, and willing to help me transition to a new kind of life. My host mom, Gladys, is always taking me under her wing, making sure I am happy, fed and watered. Fabian, my older brother, is the same, but in a more older brother-y kind of way– as in, ya jugamos carnaval, we already ‘played carnaval’ with his friends. This involved getting sprayed with cans of foam, and then water balloons, the hose, etc. I did successfully avoid the mud, at least. Fabian Sr. similarly falls into the wonderful category, and I could say the same for all the family members (muchisimos!) I have met.

 

Two things I already feel that I am getting good at: throwing my toilet paper into the trash can (that came back like a reflex I never forgot!), and cheek kissing– is there a better verb for that? I suppose that there is, to greet, because in Ecuador, to greet is to kiss someone on the cheek. It’s a get a little more complicated for men (as they have to shake hands and kiss on the cheek depending on whether it’s a man, woman, family, friend or acquaintance), but as a woman, I have it pretty simple. For example, last night we went into Quito to celebrate a grandson’s 15th birthday. To be more exact, he had already celebrated his birthday, with a big party and all his friends, but this was more of an excuse for all the families to get together, and tomar un cafecito, which I am beginning to understand means ‘dinner’ in American speak, but literally translate to drinking a little coffee. In fact, you drink coffee, or tea, and eat just a little bit, so it’s not really like dinner at all. In fact, Gladys told me that’s where America’s obesity problem comes from. Eating too much at night, not enough in the middle of that day. And I believe it! Most people are pretty trim around here– and my household is especially focused on health. On the first day I was assured that they are casi vegetarianos, but I have had meat at least once per day, which could of course be almost vegetarian down here! I did here that most of my fellow students are having ham and cheese sandwiches for breakfast, so I’m thankful for my fruit, bread, and jam. 🙂

Anyways, back to the cheek kissing example. When we entered the apartment, each one of us goes around the big circle or people and greets each person individually, and this continues as more and more people come in, until every person has greeted every person in the room. And, when it’s time to leave, the same thing occurs, accompanied by a ciao ciao. As evinced, greeting is a very important cultural event, and one that I am growing very fond of! It is so interesting to find myself being confronted with my own notion of personal space, and how people move in different relational realms here. From being crammed on a bus and noticing how someone’s leg is touching yours, to cheek kissing (greeting), my own cultural perceptions come to light, as I at first shy away, and then come to accept it. Or, as last night when we were riding back in the car from Quito, Gladys exclaimed that I was sitting so far away from her and to come closer! So, I scooted a little bit away from abuelita, and much closer to Gladys.

A note– my house, in the El Valle de Los Chillos, is around 40 minutes away from Quito with medium traffic, and and can be considerably more or less. I live within a small gated community– which is pretty much all that there is in this area. There are small towns with a few poorer families, but otherwise there is one gated community after the next, mostly upper middle class, I am guessing. I have a very nice, simple, comfortable room that gets lots of light and not too cold at night. The only bothersome thing is el gallo loco that has no sense of time and cock-a-doodle-doos all throughout the night, right behind our house. Maybe I will get used to him soon, but as of today I am still having some violent tendencies towards the rooster as he keeps me up at all hours of the night…

Overall, I’m so happy to be a part of this family for the month, and I’m sure there will be some more stories to tell. I’ve already heard that there is a big, crazy dance party this weekend at a neighbor’s house… The other good news is that I can understand almost everything that is said to me, and even listen in on others’ conversations! I’m excited to get more confident in my Spanish, and express what I really want to say, not just a simplified version. How do I say, I swear I am more articulate and intelligent in English, and know more adjectives than interesante? In fact, our 5 hour Spanish classes began this morning at 8, and that was one thing we were told we were going to focus on, adjectives. I must go buy a thesaurus! I think the class is going to be very successful, as there are only 5 students and one professor, and focuses on many different aspects of language learning: grammar, context, culture, music, etc. My assignment tonight: preterite vs. imperfect! Back to sophomore year! But truly, I do need to review.

Tomorrow, we have our first field study seminar class, so it’s going to be a long day of learning, from 8 – 4:30! Luckily, they do give us snack breaks, so I happily had some banans and tea to keep me going. Ecuador is a country that certainly knows how to feed its lucky guests.

 

Hasta pronto! Besitos!

Ciao, Haverty

Getting orientated on the equator: 0, 0, 0,

After having gone to the official site of the equator (yes, that’s right, there is only the one…), I still don’t really understand the three zeros. One, I know, is zero degrees– that makes sense– but what of the other two? It’s certainly not elevation. Oh well! What I do know is that I have officially put one of my legs on either side of a yellow line that represents the center of the earth, although I’m not sure if that changes over time (Pops?). Either way, in that moment, I didn’t expect to feel so centered, if you will, feeling incredibly close to the sun, the clouds, and green volcanoes raising up on all sides of me. There was no certain intensity in that moment, but I couldn’t hold back a feeling in my stomach that this was somehow significant. And, even in these fews days that I have been in this amazing country, I can already tell that it is.

My arrival to Ecuador began with a somewhat sketchy taxi ride in which I was way overcharged, but at that point I was willing to accept it, as all I wanted to do was be done travelling, get in to bed, and sleep. Which I promptly did. The next morning, the whole group (18 of us) headed out to a small town, San Antonio de Pichincha, for our orientation, which took place at a hostería called Rancho Alegre. A really beautiful place, colorful, green, lush, tranquilo, and the friendliest family who so kindly took care of us for the 4 days we were there, feeding us at regular intervals, keeping us happy.

Our academic directors, Leonore and Fabian, filled our innocent heads (as gringos are often perceived) with so much information, from the niceties that will give us a leg up in our families (ahi no mas), to how to avoid being robbed (never leave your belongings while helping someone else, especially if it looks like a baby is about to be dropped), and all the details of our excursions and academic papers and assignments. Yes, this is an academic program, but I couldn’t be more excited for the academic sections of this semester. I do love experiential learning…

On the first afternoon, we experienced our first “drop off,” in this case, a mini drop off. We were put into groups of three, and then given a place to find in San Antonio de Pichincha. Some groups had no idea what they were looking for, such as a tienda de abarrotes, but my group had the relatively simple centro de salud (Health Center). We were told to find the place, talk to someone there about the history or story behind it, and then report back within 2 hours. Luckily, it was relatively simple to find the centro de salud. We asked one women who pointed us in the right direction, and then ended up asking a confused looking security guard, who was definitely willing to help the three of us gringas, but a little skeptical. In the centro de salud, there were several mothers with young children, and a dental exam happening practically before our eyes, at least from our view in the waiting room. We waited about 10 minutes, feeling a little guilty about disturbing the pace of this busy clinic, until the doctora had a minute to speak to us. She was incredibly friendly, as most Ecuadorians are, and took the time to show us around the clinic, encouraging us to peak in on an older man getting his teeth cleaned/pulled, showing how privacy exists in very different forms here. After her repeated warnings for us to be safe, to take advantage of this beautiful country (will do!), we headed out to explore the town a little more, and then back to Rancho Alegre. As the rest of the groups made their way back, it was so interesting to hear everyone’s first experience out on their own, the people they encountered, the mistakes we all made, and the amount we learned in just that small activity.

This mini drop off was in preparation for the big one, which was yesterday, as we left Rancho Alegre and made our way back to Quito, to the Alston Inn– our homebase in the city. My group was told to go to Pifo, a town to the east of Quito. Each group was given vague directions, along with some ideas of what to do when we made it to our destination. Leaving around 9:00 from San Antonio, we took three buses and one taxi to make it all the way to Pifo, which in total took around 2.5 hours. It was a fun journey, finally getting out on our own to explore a little bit, having to be resourceful and ask questions, and clearly being the only foreigners in the small town of Pifo. However, I didn’t feel to out of place, I only knew that I looked it. It seems to me that people don’t stare, they avoid making eye contact, and there have been only minimal catcalls from the men. More honking than anything. Inevitably, I compare this experience to my Nicaraguan experience last summer, in which people constantly stared at me, catcalls came from all directions, and I was made much more aware that I was blonde hair-blue eyed different. Even in the small town of Pifo, knowing we stood out like many sore thumbs, I didn’t experience that same sensation of being different and having everyone know it.

Once in Pifo, we made our way to the main plaza, and sat down there for a little while, watching the small town go about its business. It was quiet indeed, until the kids came pouring out of the school, and until we went to go find a place to eat lunch. Eventually we settled on one of the many ‘chicken’ places, with a sign on the front that said ALMUERZOS (lunch). As lunch is the big meal of the day here, there is set meal that everyone is served– one that always begins with soup. We started with a delicious soup of potatoes and corn, and then moved on to the main course of rice, chicken, potatoes, and a small salad, seemingly a very typical lunch. And yes, I ate the chicken. I could write forever about food (Fruit! Fruit! I love the fruit!), but for now I will briefly mention that I have decided to eat chicken and fish while I am here. Hopefully I can avoid the rest of the carne… But, both chicken and fish seem to be integral parts of both the culture and the daily food options. We learned that chicken, eggs and dairy products are subsidized, making them much cheaper in Ecuador than in many of the surrounding countries. Thus, the eggs for breakfast everyday, the chicken soups, and chicken this and chicken that. Fish too, is important– much more on the coast than in the sierra, but it nevertheless finds its way up the mountains, and to the many cevicherias in the area. So, it’s been a bit of a struggle so far, eating meat, but I want to make a commitment to this culture, to this country and to its generous people. As Leonore told us many times, the best way to do that is to eat, and eat a lot, and exclaim over and over again, Que rico!! And say muchas gracias. Y buen provecho. The niceties are very important in the sierra.

Other than the drop offs and the information loading sessions, we were also oriented through a very fun salsa lesson, some beautiful Andean music performed by a local group, a visit to the official Mitad del Mundo site, an Ecuadorian film, a fantastically interesting lecture on current politics and history by a wonderfully eccentric ex-pat, a Spanish placement test and interview, and information on our host families! Who I will meet in about 5 hours!

For the next month, we will be living with families in the Los Chillos valley, south of Quito, and taking 5 hour intensive spanish classes every day. Along with a few other field study classes. I’m excited for the chaos, the discovery, and cannot wait to fulfill my curiosity about my family, the house, daily customs, etc.! This will be a weekend of discovery before classes start on Monday.

Even in this short time that I have been here (not even a week yet, but it feels like forever!), I can already feel myself falling for this beautiful country, la gente tan amable, the very comfortable climate, and the array of tropical fruits… I’m excited for the real work to begin, to speak Spanish all day every day, to be so exhausted at night from thinking so much, and for all of the discoveries I will soon make. I’m so thankful to be here, for this opportunity that feels more and more incredibly every day.

Love to all, Hash Brown

PS: Photos to come!!