countin' the days

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Life in the Campo

Last week, I finally packed up and headed out of Quito to begin volunteering. After quite some time of researching and nearing moments of hair-pulling, I finally found the perfect opportunity for myself. I am working with an organization called UNORCAC(, which stands for Union of Peasant and Indigenous Organizations of Cotacachi Canton. They are committed to improving the quality of life for indigenous Ecuadorians, as well as preserving and maintaining the rich cultural heritage of the region, through a variety of development projects. The region of Cotacachi itself is stunningly beautiful, with enormous volcanoes towering all around, magical crater lakes to be discovered in my free time, and dozens of indigenous communities scattered around the lush green mountain hillsides.

My first day, instead of going to work, I was invited to attend a traditional cooking workshop. About a dozen indigenous women from surrounding communities were invited to attend, and to learn more about their own traditions. The end result was both to share traditional cooking methods, and to produce a cookbook. It was a fascinating experience, which mostly involved creating various fascinating things with quinua -- croquettes, tortillas, empanadas, llapingachos, soup... you name it. Though my status as a vegetarian prohibited me from sampling a few of the dishes (and also, as ever, amazed all the locals -- why would anyone ever not want to eat meat?!?), I gorged myself on the rest of the food while everyone else ate their lunches full of carne, and it was delicious.

The next couple days I spent at the guardería, a day care center/preschool a stone´s throw from my casa for local children ages 2 to 5. Although it was fun to play around with the children, it presented a bit of a dilemma. It was completely disorganized and chaotic, with the day spent letting the kids run around and play however and wherever they wished, without the slightest shred of discipline or routine. There were no group activities, and nothing resembling basic childhood education. As someone who was a lot of experience with small children -- and regards them as incredibly able, intelligent, incredible tiny people -- it was disturbing and intensely sad to watch these little ones miss out on the chance to expand and enrich their young minds. However, being well aware of the large cultural gap between my life and theirs, and bearing in mind the fact that my ideas of cultural and educational "norms" are somewhat irrelevant to a culture that is not my own, I was careful not to place judgment or critique on the women running the guardería ... instead, I have noted many things as "suggestions", and am being encouraged by my volunteer coordinators to discuss these issues. So we shall see what I can do to help out there.

In the meantime, I´m trying my hand at a variety of other projects. It´s also Semana Santa (Holy Week) which means that there is no school, and people are celebrating every day and night the crucification and resurrection of Jesus. Or something. I am familiar with Semana Santa traditions from when I lived in Spain, but things are different here. They carry their saints on platforms around the city and eventually to the church, but fortunately, the saints here in Cotacachi are not life-sized, and are not the gory, bleeding, crying, disturbingly graphic ones so revered in Spain. It´s also a fully campo (countryside) affair. I attended the first of the processions, where people -- mostly indigenous -- from surrounding communities brought bundled offerings of plants, corn, herbs, and other crops grown in their own fields. A pickup truck followed alongside the procession, blasting over a loudspeaker the songs being sung inside the cab by a woman playing guitar, while hundreds of people casually marched along, talking amongst themselves and munching on ice cream and toasted corn. Yet again, a breath of fresh air that Spain´s traditions didn´t fully ensue here: that scary men dressed in KKK outfits waving torches and playing scary music to a completely silent audience were nowhere to be found.

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