countin' the days

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Holy Fiesta

Last Saturday, my two favorite little Ecuadorians were baptized. Sayani (3) and Apauki (5) received their holy cleansing in a tediously long nighttime ceremony in the central church of Cotacachi along with another two dozen tiny people from surrounding communities, half of whom were, not surprisingly, asleep for the whole thing. But this was hardly the main event.

Immediately following the ceremony was one big-ass party. About 100 people came: family, friends, friends of friends, community members, their children, even a few random dogs. The celebration kicked off at 11pm, when a DJ arrived with three enormous speakers and began pumping out ear-poppingly loud cumbia. (Sidenote: Cumbia, though originally a musical form from Columbia, has infiltrated Ecuador to become something of a national musical phenomenon. To paraphrase Lonely Planet, it does indeed sound like a "three-legged horse" trotting along to a Latin blend of rhythm, bass, horns, and words. More often than not it´s all produced on a single electric keyboard. Cumbia is everywhere, from restaurants to bus rides to grocery stores, and at times is sped up to such a frenzied tempo that it becomes "psycho cumbia.") Food was of course the first order of business, and each person was served up some soup and various plates, all of which naturally included the poor dead creatures mentioned in my last post. Interestingly, the guinea pig (cuy) was cut into pieces and served directly into people´s bare hands, along with a whole potato. People were pretty stoked on the cuy. It was about this time that the alcohol began to surface.

Drinking in Ecuador is a very communal affair. It goes something like this: someone walks around with a bottle of alcohol. There are three choices, and three choices ONLY of what to consume. Pilsener, the national beer; agurdiente, homemade sugar cane alcohol; or box "wine," this absolutely repugnant sugary crap artifically flavored with chemicals and in the resulting neon color it becomes, bears an eerily odd resemblance to nuclear waste (I tried my best to stay away from it). The bottle beholder walks around the party with a small plastic shotglass. When you are approached (and everyone is), you accept the shot gleefully and select another person with whom you make serious eye contact and dedicate the toast to. This person is thusly deemed the next recipient of the shot. He, then, follows suit by consuming the booze and selecting the next drinker. This process resolves around and around and around until, inevitably, it rolls right around back to YOU. Naturally, everyone gets real wasted real fast.

I retired around 4am, but the party did not. In fact, the cumbia continued at headache-inducing volumes until 10am! The DJs went home, but my family continued to play music music through their own speakers. When I finally emerged from my room around 2pm, haggard and not very well rested, there was a crew of about 5 guys who were still going. They hadn´t slept, were still drinking, and would in fact continue to do until the following night! I don´t know how they do it.

The best part of the night, for me, was the dancing. Although I got very, very tired of endlessly hearing cumbia -- especially with some of the same popular tunes repeated over and over again -- I was rewarded with a break from it, when they played selections of indigenous highland music I had never heard before. Everyone got into two large circles, and essentially shuffled around in time to the rapidly changing tempo of the music until someone decided to shout "VUELTA!" and it was time to turn around and shuffle in the other direction. And in case you´re wondering, out of all the dozens of slaughtered animals, by the end of the night only the head of one of the pigs remainded. Great success!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Dead Meat

This weekend is cause for huge celebration: the baptism of both Sayani and Apauki, the two youngest children in my family. Preparations have been underway all week long, the majority of which involve an abundance of dead animals. In these parts, there is no butcher or deli, no convenient little shop where you can buy your neat packages of pre-sliced meat. No, sir. Around here, dinner amounts to the slaughter of that cute little creature that´s been running around in front of the house all week, and the long, complicated process invovled to turn it into food. Never have I been happier to be a vegetarian.

I returned home from volunteering on Thursday to find the entire family out by the stream, gathered around a pig that had just been slaughtered a few hours before. They had its intestines in their hands, and were slowly and patiently moving along the, ahem, debris trapped inside. Yummy. Nearby was a huge cooking pot filled with blood and various organs. They made sure to point out the other pig chowing down a few feet away, who was doomed for the same fate the very next day. In true Ecuadorian fashion, later on the pig was strung up in the middle of the house, right next to kitchen. It has remained there for the last two days, draining blood and getting stuff full of herbs and whatnot to prepare for the grand all-day roasting.

The next animals in line after the pigs were the guinea pigs. That´s right, those cute little fuzzy creatures you had as a pet when you were a kid. They are called ´cuy´ (for the sound they make), and are an Ecuadorian delicacy. I knew this one was coming, but was thoroughly shocked to see a pot full of sixteen of these little guys, throats slit and skinned, looking like scary little rodents. Just doesn´t seem right, but that´s the way the coookie crumbles around here. They get roasted whole, and according to some friends of mine who´ve tried them, they´re actually almost as gross as they sound. I will say, there was some comedy involved when I walked into the kitchen with my camera: Maria and her sister-in-law went to great lengths setting up this shot, arranging the guinea pigs to face the camera as best as possible, laughing heartily all the while.

Next up were 20-something chickens, and a dozen rabbits. Yesterday from morning ´til night, my casa became a slaughterhouse.

In all fairness, there have been plenty of other preparations for this giant fiesta. For example, I went to the market with María to buy lace for the new blouse she´s making for Sayani. And there have been dozens of relatives around the house to help with some construction, clean-up, and all kinds of cooking that doesn´t involve slicing the throats of innocent little animals. But for some reason, that action has sure seemed to stick out.

Truth be told, I´ve been kind of fascinated by the whole process. Of course, I have less than no desire to eat any of these creatures. But I mean, if you´re gonna eat meat, this is the way to do it. Raise the animal right in your backyard, slaughter it yourself, put in all the legwork it takes to deal with the carcass, and then eat every last thing except the head and bones. I´ve been a source of much comedy this week, what with my crazy questions and facial expressions which have ranged from shock to horror to astonishment. The best of all was when Apauki ran into dinner one night squealing and wearing the pig´s toenails on his own fingers. I couldn´t hide my expression of horrific disgust, but it quickly turned into nothing but pure smiles as everyone in the room burst into laughter (mostly at my reaction) for the next couple of minutes. Ahhh, life in the campo.

Alternate titles for this post included:
A Vegetarian in Carnewonderland
Lessons in Death
Adventures in Slaughter
Waste Not, Starve Not
Your Cute Furry Pet = Dinner!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Mi Familia Indígena

This is my family. They are a group of tremendously lovely, warmhearted, indigenous Ecuadorians with whom I am currently living out in the lush countryside of Cotacachi. We eat at least 2 meals a day together, always chatting and laughing in Spanish about me, Cotacachi, Ecuador, and the world. To them, I am Cocito: the affectionate, familiarized modification of my Third-World moniker, Coco.

This is Pedro, father and husband. He used to be the president of Santa Bárbara, the community of some 250 people where they live. Nowadays he spends his days working on various construction and development projects around the area, always returning home for dinner around 6pm with a huge smile on his face. Like everyone else I´ve met in the village, he is always anxious to know how I´m doing, and how I feel about the community and Ecuador in general. My response is always the same: I love it.

Then there´s María. She had her first child at 18 and married at 20. Now at only 38, she has five children and is the true head of the household. She instantly took me on as yet another daughter, and is a constant fountain of generosity and compassion. She´s always calm and responsive to my daily barrage of questions, ranging from cultural traditions to soup recipes to words I can´t seem to remember in Spanish. She´s spent her whole life here, but told me she secretly wishes she´d gotten to spend some more time on her own before settling into married family life. No kidding.

The three older daughters are Anita (20), Alicia (17), and Apacha (14). Here I am with them, dressed in traditional indigenous garments at the request, and to the delight of, my family for this week´s Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations. (The only other non-sister is the one to the left of me... by the way notice how I´m the tallest person in the photo, that´s a new one for me!) They are all beautiful and look stunningly alike. Anita is currently living in Quito and going to college, but the other two help with every last activity around the house. They wash the clothes, clean, cook meals, attend to the animals, and watch the little ones when María is attending to other issues. I don´t think I know another teenager anywhere who would be capable of half of the things these girls do on a daily basis.

Then there´s the little ones: Apauki (5) and Sayani (3). A constant source of joy and amusement. They are also best friends with each other, with is pretty much the cutest thing to watch. They spend their days doing kid stuff: getting filthy, chasing chickens, kicking soccer balls, running around, loving life. They are always glad to see me when I return from wherever, greeting me with hugs and jumping and sleeve-tugging, and it always makes my day.

And finally, there´s Grandma. Or, at least I think that´s what she is. I can´t quite figure out where this lovely old lady fits in, but I´m pretty sure she was introduced as someone´s mama. But she´s always hanging around and I´m relatively sure she lives in the tiny shack on the property. She always gives me the biggest smile I´ve ever seen whenever I walk by, and chats away to me in Quichua even though I hardly speak a word. And though she has large cataracts in both eyes, she giggled like a little kid when I showed her this photo of herself.

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.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bailando la Salsa

When Friday rolled around, it was time to party. Lauren & Ari came back to Quito, and after a full week of researching volunteer projects and trying to get things in my life together (both here and back in California), I was ready to let loose -- especially since everything had so nicely and conveniently come together on Friday afternoon. My Ecuadorian friends had good reason for celebration too, since it was Edison´s birthday. After a couple of warm-up beers at a restaurant, the choice was clear: off to Seseribó for some salsa dancing!

Seseribó is a salsateco right in the center of Quito. Unlike many other salsa venues in town, it is dedicated to ONLY playing salsa, and is frequented nightly by the best salsa dancers in Ecuador. I mean, these folks know how to do salsa right. I could easily spend a whole evening gazing only at their feet... This was my second, and hopefully not my last, visit to Seseribó. All night long until 3am, we were treated to salsa pura y salsa vieja: classic and pure salsa, straight from the Caribbean and mostly from the golden salsa decades of long ago. Super divertido.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Landslides and Glacier Climbs

Eventually it became abundantly clear that it was time to get back to the mountains. Lauren and I formulated a new plan that would, slowly but surely, get us to a particularly heralded stretch of mountains a couple hours south of Quito where we could spend a few days hiking. When we arrived at the Quevedo terminal to transfer buses, we were shocked to find that it was not possible to get where we wanted to go. Why? A massive landslide, not surprising consider it´s the rainy season and we´d already driven past several in our many kilometers of travel. So we sat in the sticky bus station, opened up our Lonely Planets, and being the fantastic and efficient travel buddies that we were, rapidly formulated a new plan. Go back to Quito, and leave the next day for a different adventure. But on the bus back to Quito, we suddenly came to a complete stop and were delayed for nearly 2 hours as yet another landslide blocked our path! It could have been worse, we decided, and in the midst of waiting I struck up a conversation in Spanish with our neighbors. They asked me, "How do you like Ecuador?" I responded sarcastically, "Right at this moment?...", and was greeted with a chorus of giggles from half of the bus.

Our plans began to change. We made it to Quito, though quite late at night. Thus, leaving the next day became out of the question. Instead, we went rock climbing here in the city at the Rocódromo. As luck would have it, we ended up meeting some great locals. One such local, Andrés, invited us out that night for drinks and dancing at some funky bars, and suddenly leaving the next day became out of the question as well. We ended up staying in Quito all week long, and enjoyed the city in a whole new light as Andrés showed us a good time via exquisite desserts, salsa dancing, independent movies, and epic city vistas.

When the weekend rolled around, Lauren and I parted ways so she could join newly-arrived Ari for some romance, and I went off with Andrés and his mountaineering club to Volcán Cayambe to try my hand at ice climbing. All the experience I´d racked up climbing rocks in Asia was irrelevant -- ice climbing is a whole different story and I was a complete novice. Fortunately, it was the perfect weekend for me to learn, as the club was up there just to practice and not to reach a summit. Mostly we stayed on the same little stretch of glacier, practicing walking up and down in only our boots, handling the ice pick, using the deadly-looking crampons, and ascending and descending vertical shafts of ice. I even practiced doing a rescue -- the kind of thing that would happen only in the very worst of the worst situations. It was one of the hardest damn things I´ve ever done, but I sure learned a thing or two about knots, safety, and the dire importance of working quickly.

I´d seen plenty of glaciers in my time, but never had I been actually on top of one.It was an amazing feeling. No less spectacular were the views from the mountain early in the morning, down and across hundreds of kilometers of the Andes, with the enormous peaks of Antisana and Cotopaxi popping up through the clouds. It was one of the most physically demanding things I´ve ever done, and the following Monday my thighs were so ridiculously rocked that it was hard to walk on even the tiniest steps. But with my confidence boosted and a little experience under my belt, I can´t wait to try it again.