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, reggaeton...you 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.