Monday, August 23, 2010

A Farewell to the Blog...

Hey everyone. It´s been a while since my last entry and after some thinking and consideration I have decided to terminate my blog. Don´t worry! I´m going to write and you can still read if you want. Just send me your email address and I´m going to send mass emails to family, friends, and anyone else who would like to read. The reasons for not keeping a blog will be better explained in this email. As for the important stuff...well...I´m safe, I´m not ill or depressed (actually having a great time), I´m still learning and getting some work done. I just recently moved into my very own house. This is probably the most exciting thing yet for me. So to keep this goodbye short I will leave you on that not. Don´t forget to send me your emails at ( Hope to hear from you all. Miss you and come visit!

Friday, May 21, 2010

New in town

Greetings to all from sunny, rainy, mosquito infested, hot, humid, and green Esmeraldas. So I have been in sight now for 4 weeks although it doesn´t seem so. At first it was super strange being suddenly taken away from the people wo I had practically spent every waking minute with and put into a basically new and completely different community (culturally speaking) than the mountains. Here in the coast no one is shy. Everyone wants to talk (very loudly and very fast). During a typical walk through my community in the first week, I was bombarded by the same list of questions from just about everyone I talked to. ¨What are you doing here? How long are you here for? 2 years!? How old are you? Are you married? But you have kids right? Girlfriend? Woman? Why not? Well you should meet my cousin/niece/daughter!¨ And if it was a group of men that I passed they would surely push a small vaso of beer on me each time I walked by. People are now starting to treat me more normally now that they know me but I still get that special gringo attention and for now I´m ok with that.
So what fun and constructive stuff have I done in four weeks? Well...actually a lot more than I thought I would do. They constantly told us in training to be prepared to shift to first gear when we got to sight. They told us we might get bored and just to focus on getting to know people. Well I haven´t been bored. My counterpart is president of the organic cacao farmer´s organization so I´ve been spending a bunch of time with him. The organization already had a huge project almost underway when I got here so I´ve been helping with that. They´ve received funding from an Ecuadorian organization and an international organization to build an office, a cacao fermentation system, and a tendal for drying cacao. Before this they had to sell their product fresh and unprocessed and were thus losing out on potential profit. By fermenting and drying their own cacao they can make about double. So basically for 3 days or more a week I´ve been working construction with my counterpart and other members of the organization. Sawing iron bar, mixing cement, building and cementing columns into the ground, digging a lot, hauling sand and gravel, and drinking obscene amounts of water. I know that my job is not to be a manual laborer but at this point it´s a good way to keep busy, be outside, and become friends with the people I´m going to be working with. It´s also fun to see a building being made completely by hand free of all machines.
Two weeks ago my host father invited me to his farm called La Montaña a two hour walk away to harvest coconuts after I had said that I wanted to bake a coconut cake for Mother´s Day. ¨Sure that sounds great,¨ I said. So we wake up at 5 am, I put on my rubber knee high boots and we are on our way. It turned into a 3 hour walk and we were surrounded by the beautiful rolling green hills and valleys of Esmeraldas. In every direction were African Palm, Banana, Cacao, Coconut, and all walks of tropical trees. The scenery was amazing but the hike was miserable. We are in the rainy season and the mud is ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS. Having hiked this trail probably hudreds of times, Hugo knew exactly where to step to keep the pace going. On the other hand everywhere I seemed to step, I sunk almost knee deep in mud/horse and cow manure only to pull my foot out while it made a loud sucking noise while the other foot sank. It was a struggle but I didn´t complain and I endured the laughing and jokes on his part. They were good natured laughs and jokes so I tried to ignore the heat, the sweat, and the mud and just keep going. Finally we arrived at a two story wooden house on top of a hill where his parents lived. I greeted his mother and then took a rest in the hammock on the top floor. After lunch we went out walking through the farm which is basically like a jungle. Armed with a stick of about 20 feet in length with a small blade on the end we went to knock coconuts out of trees. The younger coconuts are called pipas and they don´t have much meat but they are full of juice and I must have drank at least 5. I learned how to peel them and open them with a machete though I´m still not an expert. So we loaded up 2 sacks of fresh coconuts, he showed me his new cacao plants, and we headed back to the house to be on our way. Then he tied the two sacks together and threw them over a horse and told me to get on and ride. So he walked and I rode the horse back and it only took two hours this time. Go figure. Despite the walk there La Montaña is great and beautiful. Far away from roads, cars, electricity, and tucked away quietly in a small valley surround by the tropical wildlife that calls this place home.
And then there was the Mother´s Day celebration. Starting Sunday afternoon on Mother´s Day there are festivities in the street in my community. All of the oldest mothers are seated in the middle of the street and one by one they are recognized while a friend, family member, or anyone places a sash on them to honor them for Mother´s Day. Meanwhile, the men are celebrating and drinking in the streets and of course relentlessly offering me beers. So I make my rounds and try not to spend too much time in one spot and suddenly i hear my name being called on a megaphone to come to the front and place a sash on a lady whom I´ve never met or even seen. So I put on a smile and did it, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and went back to where my host brother´s wife and all her friends were standing. After the ceremony for the mom´s began the dancing. Salsa, merengue, bachata, cumbia, name it. For the next 5 hours all the men were offering me dances with their wives, daughters, nieces, etc. ¨Dance with my wife. She really wants to dance with a gringo,¨ they´d say. Luckily I knew some steps so I actually didn´t look like a total fool. That day was a good ice breaker for me as afterward everyone knew me as Esteban and not just gringo.
About a week ago I visited the school for the first time and talked to the principal and asked him how I could help. I told him that I would like to help the kids in their school garden and teach them about organic agriculture, fertilizers, composting, and things of that nature. He said ¨That´s great but we need seeds.¨ Also he asked me if I could teach English to the 7th graders for 1 hour a week on Tuesdays. I agreed and told him that I´d do what I could about the seeds. So I came to Atacames for a day last weekend and searched all over town for a store that sells seeds and finally I found a place. I told the lady what I was doing and that I was a volunteer helping at a school and she was more than happy to donate seeds: watermelon, canteloupe, tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, etc. So I show up to teach English on the following Tuesday with a very loose lesson plan. Numbers, greetings, alphabet, and basic questions and answers. Teaching English is hard man! But thankfully the kids are really enthusiastic and seem like they want to learn. It was something that I was dreading but it actually turned out to be pretty fun. Now everywhere I go in town I have kids saying hey to me and calling me by my actual name (again not Gringo). The next day I took the seeds to the school and helped them prepare the soil in their garden and then we planted stuff. It was a blast for us all. I told them to start collecting all the organic trash from their houses (peels, vegetable scraps, eggshells, etc.) and bring them to school so we can make a big compost pile. They seem to be into it and the school seems like a good place for me to start with projets like this. The English is going to be a challenge and take some time but it´s cool to think that the English that they know after this will all be what I taught them.
Another really awesome thing that I did last week was go fishing with my host sister and her husband. We paddled a wooden canoe out the river through the mangroves and into the ocean. We used a small net to catch these little tiny shrimp in the shallow water that we would use as bait. Then we threw a giant next out with bouys made out of bottles on the end and left it while we fished with the line. Basically you just take a fishing line in your hand and at the end their are three hooks. Bait up the hooks with little pieces of shrimp and toss em in the water. I found it way easier to feel the fish biting by just holding a line as opposed to a pole. I don´t know how it happened but the first fish I caught was hooked through the tail...wierd. It was the biggest one we caught that day and it was called an Alguasil. We also caught a couple small corvina, raton, and a lot of coruku y peña. In all I caught like 11 fish. Awesome! Then we ate them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next 3 days. Even more awesome!
As of now I seem to be integrating pretty well into my site. I´ve made friends, and haven´t made enemies that I know of. Their is always work to do either in the school or with my counterpart and the farmers or fishermen. I´ve visited a few cacao farms and helped prune the trees to get ready for the harvest which starts in less than a month. My Spanish is coming along great although I really haven´t studied lately. I really have no complaints at this point. I´ve starting playing soccer and volley with the local guys during the afternoons. I am in beautiful surroundings with kind people and a lot of work to do. But I can also relax here too if I want. It´s a different pace of life but things are good. There is no crime where I live whatsoever. It´s very small and everyone looks out for each other. It´s much more communal than I´m used to and I like it.
I think thats probably enough for now. I will post again soon. Thanks for reading guys. Peace and love to everyone back home. I hope you are all doing well. Saludos y Ciao.

Monday, April 26, 2010

How to prepare a cuy, How to celebrate Easter in Ecuador, and How I finally became a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Hey everyone. Sorry it´s been so long but the last part of training has been crazy and well...I could go on with excuses of why I haven´t written but that´s just a waste. I´m still alive and well and I´m now officially sworn in as a volunteer of Peace Corps in my site. So I think it only makes sense to start with the fun and what some of you may consider downright cruel and gross stuff. Killing, cleaning, and of course eating cuys! Who remembers what a cuy is? If you said guinea pig, give yourself a nice pat of the back. After pestering my host mom in Olmedo for weeks about when we get to kill a cuy finally one Sunday (mind you cuy is a food only for special occasions) she said we could do it. I had just gotten back to the house from a hike and I saw a potato sack lying in the middle of the kitchen floor and when i went to move it, it moved itself. So step by step here´s how it goes.
Step 1. Boil a huge pot of water and sprinkle some wood ash in it.
Step 2. Pull cuy out of bag and hold by the neck tightly so that it won´t turn it´s head and bite you.
Step 3. Lay cuy down on it´s stomach on any hard surface (the dinner table that you eat on is just fine).
Step 4. This part is tricky and note for the faint of heart. While holding on to the neck, lift the head of the cuy and place the nose directly against the table. (Stop reading if you´re feeling sick.) With all your might, press down on the back of the cuy´s head so as to break the nose into it´s brain. When you hear a pop, that´s all she wrote. Sorry guys...
Step 5. Take a large bowl and hold cuy over it and pull out the eyeballs. Hold him/her upside down and let excess blood drain. This keeps the meat from being too dark and irony.
Step 6. Dip cuy head first in boiling water for about 5 seconds and remove. Quickly pull all hair out and place in the bowl. Once you are done, soap up the cuy and shave it with a knife.
Step 7. Make a small incision in the belly of the cuy and gently tear it open carefully removing the internal organs. Remember to take caution when removing the gaulbladder because popping it inside the animal can be disatrous (it makes the meat unbearably bitter). Do leave the kidney´s inside the cuy as they are delicious when roasted. Save the liver and heart to make a nice stew also and the instestines if you feel so inclined.
Step8. Roast in the oven or over hot coals until done and enjoy my friend.

Now people don´t judge me. It tastes great and if you´re going to eat meat, why not experience the full process that it takes for you to eat it. Anyway if you think thats bad, you should see them slaughter a sheep or pig. So whenever you get bored and or hungry, go to you neighborhood pet store and buy a guinea pig and see what fancy recipes you can come up with.
So now on to the Easter celebrations here. As is the case with all Hispanic countries, the entire week leading up to Easter is called Semana Santa (Holy Week). There is mass every day and on Good Friday there is a procession through the streets of La Passión. Jesus carrying a cross, people walking with him, Roman guards...a reenactment of the whole thing. There is no work for this week and it´s a week for everyone to spend with family, friends, eating, drinking, and enjoying life within the bounds of the Catholic faith. By the way there is no Easter Bunny here...I tried to explain it to my host family and other Ecuadorians and they either laughed their asses off or thought it was the stupidest thing ever. We´ll talk about the Easter Bunny irony in a minute. The one single thing that brings all Ecuadorian Catholics together besides Semana Santa itself during this time is the famous and delicious soup they call ¨fanescaIt´s basically a creamy potato soup with salted fish and 12 ¨granos¨including corn, beans, and others. The 12 granos represent the 12 disciples. They serve you a huge bowl of it with a sliced hard boiled egg, big pieces of queso fresco (ecuadorian cheese), and tiny fried balls of dough. good that I had a second bowl but I didn´t know that there was a second course consiting of a huge lettuce leaf filled with mashed potatoes and more queso fresco and hard boiled eggs. So i toughed it out and made it though the plate only to pass out for a long time afterward. Fanesca grows inside the stomach after you eat it. So this was on Saturday before Easter (the fanesca and mashed potato meal happens on Saturday as well as Sunday).
So later on Saturday we killed a few more cuys for Sunday and then for the biggest irony of all...yes eating rabbit on Easter! My friend Jacob and I, being volunteers and all, jumped at the gun at the chance to do this rabbit business. I won´t go into detail because I might seriously disturb you all but the process is the same as the cuy except for the way you kill it. I´ll just say it involves a metal pipe and quick blows to the head. It´s actually the most humane way you can do it. And as for rabbit meat...Rico!
Later that evening, I cooked spaguetti again for Doña Edita and Elizabeth by request. This was my last night in Olmedo. We had all been dreading this for the whole week. After dinner, Edita came into the dining room holding a huge cake for me. ¨Muchas Felicitaciones¨it read. I wanted to cry right there but I didn´t. So there we sat talking and laughing eating cake and drinking tea and Doña Edita came in from the next room with a small gift for me...a few simple storage pots for food and such. But the real gifts were her hugs and words. She hugged me and congratulated me, said she couldn´t believe it was already time for me to go and then starting crying. I couldn´t hold it back any longer and I cried with her. It´s amazing how in such a short time you can make such a connection with someone, especially when communication is seriously limited. I said I would call and visit...which I have and I will. I was honestly lucky and blessed with the host family I lived with for training. All the jokes, laughter, her doing my laundry behind my back when I told her not to, me cooking my ¨strange but delicious gringo food¨for them, her laughing at my friends and I for drinking cold beer as opposed to room temperature, helping her plant seeds and feed her animals on the farm, walking down the block to get milk with her, playing guitar with abuelo, watching the news every night with them, them laughing at me for always having to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, helping Edita and her mother shell beans in the kitchen, learning how to kill and clean a cuy, all of the family constantly correcting my Spanish with a smile, and their kindness and patience all around will be missed. I have never had an experience quite like living with Doña Edita and her daughter and I will never forget it. They are missed but they have already made my experience in Ecuador more than meaningful.
After leaving Olmedo, we all split up and went on our respective tech trips. This is when we go to the regions where our sites are (coast, mountains, or jungle) for 2 weeks and learn about agricultural techniques that are specific to that area. Since my site is in Esmeraldas and right on the coast, I was on the coastal trip. We visited organic farms and learned all about Cacao (which is what I´m primarily going to be working with), some coffee, platanos, and general stuff like composting and wormbeds. Worm beds I found especially cool. You basically build a bed like contraption with walls and a floor and fill it with a bit of dirt, a lot of manure, water, and lots of random organic materials such as grass, rice shells, fruit peels, chopped up banana trees, ash, and whatever else you can find. Throw in a bunch of worms, cover the bed so birds can´t get in and let them go to work. After a few short weeks you will have super fertile soil aka worm crap. As one of my compañeros so eloquently put it (pardon my french) ¨Worm shit is the shit.¨ Ain´t that the truth. Overall the tech trip was great. I know the basics of organic agriculture and how to teach it to kids at least for now. There is still much to learn. Oh and by the way...Cacao is awesome! Yes that´s what they make chocolate from.
After the 2 week long tech adventure, we all returned to Quito for 6 days until swearing in. Boy was this a fun week. No longer were we locked in our hostels and forbidden to go out and enjoy the city. Let´s just say we had fun being all together for the last time in a while. An the moustaches...haha ohhhhhhh the moustaches. The majority of the men in our group shaved moustaches for the week and for swearing in and we had fun with that. We even got our Country Director (our boss) to shave one with us. Talk about solidarity. The dumbest things are usually the most fun. We had a nice ceremony at the Ambassador´s residence (moustaches included) and then a BBQ at PC headquarters that afternoon. Later on we watched Dolph Lundgren´s ¨Showdown in Little Tokyo,¨ took naps and then had a night on the town...the last one all together for at least 4 months. I´ve made some great friends here and it´s hard to leave people that you´ve gotten close with (friends and host families). But a great adventure is on the horizon for all of us I hope. We have so much to look forward to. Leaving Quito and saying goodbye to everyone was strange. Rarely in our lives do we have one day of ecstacy followed by a somber and what may seem lonely day but is really just the beginning of an awesome new chapter. It´s only been 2 1/2 months but I feel like I´ve known a lot of these compañeros for years. Now is only the beginning.
So here I sit in Esmeraldas, where I´ll be for 2 years. I live in a small town called Pedro Carbo right on the coast in the southernmost part of the province. You won´t find it in any guide book or on google. My counterpart agency is APROCAM which is an organic Cacao farmers organization. I´m here to help them increase production and commercialize their product. There is also a fishermans organization, a women´s group, a school, and many other possibilities or me to work with. Let´s see the´s hot here really hot, it´s humid, it´s green in almost every direction, my town is poor. There is no market, there is no high school. The majority of the people are educated only through 7th grade. Few houses have running water (mine doesn´t). I get to bathe in the river which actually feels pretty good. I eat seafood everyday and my host mom here is an amazing cook. To be quite honest I feel a bit lost. If I´m going to help these farmers do anything, I have to learn a whole hell of a lot from them first. Expectations are high of me and I want to deliver but in time. Now I just want to make friends and get to know everyone. This is a slow process. Oh and I´m only 20 min away from one of the most tranquil and best surfing beaches in Ecuador. Come visit. Well that´s all for now. I will be back soon with more details from my site. Thanks for reading. I miss you all. Ciao.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Otavalo and Cuyes

Greetings all. So to catch up on the past couple weeks...still in Olmedo with Doña Edita and still not terribly ill. This Friday (4 more days) we find out our sites! Everyone is speculating and voicing their hopes but in the end it´s all out of our hands. If I had to choose, I would want to live in the rainforest or the highlands. Everyone just talks about how miserably hot the coast and rainforest are but at least the rainforest has all the rare stuff (plants and animals) that you would never get to see anywhere else. Look at me speculating and continue with the story now.
2 weekends ago my group took a cultural trip to Cotacachi and Otavalo. Both have a high population of indigenous people most of whom speak Quichua in addition to Spanish. In Cotacachi we went to a waterfall called Cascada de Peguche which was amazing. The water was freezing and it felt amazing to stand under the fall although a bit painful. It was quite a comedic site for the Ecuadorians seeing a crazy group of gringos screaming and laughing in the water. I cut my foot in two places which was a bit of a bummer but I´m all healed up now and I still got to play in the volunteer soccer tourney. That night in Cotacachi we did homestays with indigenous families. I stayed with Jacob with a family of three. Milton, Mercedes, and I can´t remember the name of the 5 year old daughter. They were nice people and we had radishes, lentils, and rice for dinner. The next morning Jacob and I went with Mercedes to harvest corn and beans in their farm with her 3 year old niece. At first the little girl was really shy but then as I was bending over to picks some beans she jumped on my back and whispered in a develish voice in my ear "MATA." Of course in Spanish this means "kill" and it´s hilarious because after she said it she it would switch back to a cute little girl laughing in your face. This continued for the rest of the morning and now "mata" is quite the joke with our group.
Later that afternoon we went to Otavalo which is home to the biggest flea/crafts market in all of South America. The main area is called Plaza de Ponchos and is full of all kinds of cloths, trinkets, and all sorts of random stuff. I really wanted to buy some alpaca clothing but I should wait because if I get placed in the coast of rainforest they will not serve me well at all. I did however buy a sweet cowboy hat, a white buttonup shirt with indigenous designs, and a charango which is a very small guitar-like intrument. It has 10 strings and sounds awesome when played correctly. The problem is that it´s tuned totally different than a guitar so I have to relearn all the chords and finger positions. I will be a charango shredder after 2 years. We ate some fried tilapia with yucca and rice from a street vendor in the market and it completely rocked my world for $1.20. God I love it! The market was great and once I find out my site I may be making a trip back to get alpaca clothes. We shall see.
Aside from that, training has pretty much Mucho trabajo and mucho español. We had a fun medical session last week about dangerous insects and wierd skin diseases (pictures included). Tomorrow we have a medical session on STD´s and pregnancy (pictures included I assume. Should be fun. Last friday we had mañana deportiva where each town of trainees, and the staff had a soccer team. There were 12 teams in all and after a long day Olmedo finishd 2nd and yes we did get silver medals!!! Not to mention we beat the staff 2-1 to make the finals. Needless to say they were not happy. Amyway I have to go now but I promise I will put pictures up this week and hopefully a video of me killing a guinea pig which happened yesterday. Tommorow I will post that story because it deserves a post of it´s own. Love to all and thanks for reading. Drop me an email every now and then and keep me updated on life back home. Ciao.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Well it´s now been 2 weeks in Ecuador and almost one week with my new host family in my CBT (community based training) site. I´m living in a very small pueblo of a couple thousand people called Olmedo. It´s higher elevation than Cayambe and we have an even better view of the volcano which is awesome. I´m here with the rest of the Avanzado language group which consists of Miguel, Jacobo, Jack, David, Katy, and myself. It´s a good group and we´re all having a blast during and after our Spanish classes. I live with a lady, Doña Edita, and her daughter Mariella in a house in the back of a little clothing/shoe tienda. Doña Edita´s parents live next door to us and I pretty much see them most of the day. We have a kitchen, a good sized dining room (where our group has Spanish classes), and my room which is really quite big. I have 2 beds, a couch, and 2 big comfy seats. We´ve had a couple movie nights in my room but really by 9:30 we´re all ready to go to sleep because the days are so full. Dinner, a beer, and about an hour and a half of free time and it´s time to sleep! Behind the house we have a little personal farm where coliflor, brocoli, lettuce, potatoes, beets, beans, and much more are all grown. We also have about 20 chickens and about the same amount of guinea pigs, which I am ashamed to say I still haven´t eaten. I still have time though!
Before more on Olmedo, I want to back track a bit to the trip we took as a group to La Mitad del Mundo (The middle of the world) at the beginning of training. The is a park where the equator passes through the earth (clearly marked) and there are all kinds of wierd things there to see and do. For example, when standing directly on the equator, it´s possible to balance an egg on a nail standing straight up. Yes I did it and yes I got a certificate for doing it. Who wants some?! My next favorite thing was when our tour guide demonstrated the difference in water revolving on each side of the line. He took a small tub on a stand and filled it with water on one side no more than 6 inches away from the equator and when he pulled the plug the water spun clockwise. He did the same thing 6 inches away from the other side and it spun counter clockwise. Here´s the kicker though: He put the tub directly on the line and when he drained the water it didn´t spin at all but just fell straight out. The next trick is a bit harder to explain but I will do my best. The guide told me to hold the tips of my thumb and index fingers together as hard as I could so that he could not pull them apart. I did it and he couldn´t pull them apart. Then he had me stand directly on the equator and do the same thing. When he pulled this time, I had no strength and could do nothing but watch my fingers come apart without a fight. I almost cried I was laughing so hard. By far my least favorite part of La Mitad del Mundo was the intense sunburn I got that lasted for 3 days! Overall a great time though.
So we´ve been spending our days in Spanish/Culture classes from 8am-4pm and then we are free to hang out with each other, our host families or just walk around the town (which takes no time at all). Today I went with Doña Edita to her other farm to feed her calves, pigs, and guinea pigs. She also has 5 tiny puppies there and a little boy named William came with us and bought one today for 2 dollars! I want one so bad but PC did specifically tell us not to get a dog during training so I should comply. Some days we go to the field and play soccer or do these ridiculous excersises that Miguel taught us (not fun at this altitude at all). I can barely run for 3 minutes yet withough feeling like I´m dying. Most of the time I just hang out at home and talk to Edita and try to improve my comprehension and speaking skills. I´m her 6th PCV so she knows the deal and is really cool about everything. She keeps me well fed (too well fed) and jokes with me when I help her in the kitchen because men DO NOT cook in the homes here.
Last Sunday I helped Doña Edita, her family, and neighbors move stones to a path where they are building a new road. This sort of thing happens one day every weekend and is called La Minga. La Minga is basically a weekly communal work day where everyone in all the towns gets out to work on public projects that benefit everyone without getting paid. It´s a tradition that goes back a few hundred years I have learned. Everyday is fun and everyday is a challenge. No one here speaks a word of English and everyone has lots of questions to ask of the ¨gringitos.¨ It´s a fun curse to be the center of attention.
Tommorow we go to Ayora to meet with the rest of the PCT´s and share information on our respective CBT sites. Should be interesting to hear what everyone else´s sites are like. I know ours is the best and we wrote a song to sing to the rest of the group to describe how badass we and Olmedo really are. Anyway that´s enough for know. Love to all and thanks for reading. I´ll post pics soon. Ciao!