Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An article I wrote for the Peace Corps Community Health newsletter

As a part of Peace Corps Ecuador, Omnibus 102’s training during the summer of 2009, a then-current volunteer, Craig Adams, visited Cayambe to deliver a presentation about baños secos, a type of composting toilet. Craig started out by explaining the many inefficiencies of dealing with Western sanitation systems. At his farm in the US, for example, state law required the installation and use of a gigantic septic tank that, in his telling, would only serve its purpose for about 20 years. After that period, the accumulated waste would basically just sit there, eventually corroding the walls of the tank, where it would then slowly leak out, contaminating the land and water for years to come.

In Craig’s view, this was a ridiculously shortsighted and environmentally destructive (not to mention expensive) solution to a problem that humans have been grappling with since the dawn of civilization: effective waste management. How did the West develop such a twisted relationship with one of our most basic bodily functions? One answer lies in Victorian England, where a general sense of disgust with the human body fermented and mutated over centuries of landed gentry and priggish aristocracy. As the Industrial Revolution concentrated higher numbers of people in smaller spaces, our connection with the land diminished. Trash and waste left to collect in the streets all but defined urban squalor. When indoor plumbing and sewer systems were eventually developed, populations naturally let out a collective sigh of relief as they flushed their problems down the drain.

But where does it all go? Gallons of fresh water are wasted every time, and scores of chemicals are dumped in an effort to “treat” our waste and stop contamination. But it all eventually makes its way back to the water supply. This is true for a well-developed American city, and the problem is even more pronounced in areas without highly developed sewers and pipes. As nations struggle to emulate the luxuries of the developed world, tons of human waste are dumped directly into water supplies, all for a flush toilet. Communicable diseases thrive and spread among populations living in non-existent sanitary conditions. This is clearly not a sustainable solution.

Nor is it the only solution. In other parts of the world, humans have been composting and reusing their waste for centuries. That’s what Craig was talking about during training. With minimal investment and just a little bit of maintenance, human waste can be safely and effectively converted to nutrient rich fertilizer. This makes total sense; instead of attempting to chemically process our waste, while at the same time chemically enriching our soil, we have a completely natural way to kill both birds with the same stone: composting toilets.

This was all news to me. I had never heard of anything like this before. I was smitten. As I got to site, I read all of the literature available through Peace Corps on composting and ecological bathrooms. I was even fortunate enough to be placed at a site with an actual need for sanitation systems. Located in the subtropical zone of Cotopaxi, my site is comprised of 15 or so recintos, or small communities, spread out across the foothills of the Andes. In at least three recintos there was a complete lack of any bathrooms; the people actually had to hike away from their houses to relieve their bodily functions wherever they could. In addition to contaminating the many rivers snaking through the mountains, numerous preventable diseases were easily spread as nearly all of the children suffered from various intestinal worms and parasites.

But where to start? While all of this made sense in my head, I struggled to think of how to translate my ideas from English to Spanish, and then to reality. Plus, I had just learned about all of this very recently. Now I’m supposed to be teaching it to a group of people that I barely knew in a language that I was still struggling to grasp? Under qualified doesn’t begin to describe how I was feeling.

Much of what happened next was due to dumb luck. I had been shadowing my counterpart at my host organization for some months. We mostly focused on community gardening and home compost piles. And when I say we, I really mean my counterpart – he doing all of the working and talking, and me just kind of following him around smiling, shaking hands, and raking and shoveling on command. Which really was great; I was extremely lucky and grateful for Jobany’s patience and lack of frustration with a clueless foreigner living in his shadow, constantly asking what must have been ridiculous and repetitive questions.

As I was saying, I didn’t really feel like much of an organizer. The idea of spreading the gospel of composting toilets seemed like a total pipe dream. And then the blind luck struck. One day about six months into my service, I happened to be sitting around at a meeting with my counterpart, our organization, and the members of the junta parroquial, our community’s local government. The meeting went along as usual: everybody arriving late and, upon arriving, delivering a long, drawn-out introduction. Then someone started talking about the latrine situation, or lack thereof, in the outer recintos. The general consensus was that the town had to get its act together and start building some latrines.

I couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass by without my at least trying to throw my two cents in. In the spirit of a rural community meeting in Ecuador, I waited for the smallest pause in between someone else’s sentences and hurled myself into the conversation. In my very best gringo Spanish, I exaggerated (or lied, if you prefer) that I had experience in baños secos, a type of composting toilet that I thought would be a perfect solution for the community’s needs. Who knows if anyone even understood what I was getting at? Everybody kind of just stared at me and tried to smile and nod along politely. Then I showed them a slide show of photos that Craig had sent me, and people started to get what I was talking about.

I explained that I could apply for a grant through USAID’s PL-480 program, and both my counterpart organization and the junta made it a point of the meeting to officially consider what I had to say. Just that consideration right there felt like the definition of a Peace Corps success.

After that, things just started happening on their own. A field trip was organized with the junta and my counterpart organization to the province of Santo Domingo de las Tsachilas to investigate various types of existing composting toilets that were currently in use. Through this experience, we gained actual knowledge of the ideas and theories, which had been up until now, just a bunch of talk. We saw many different designs, each bathroom slightly different to meet the needs of its community and geography, but with the same overall goal of composting human waste.

We met with a local maestro (a carpenter, architect, plumber, and electrician all rolled into one) to start working on a design of how our baños secos would look and function in our unique environment. I began the arduous task of completing the 20 plus page PL-480 grant, in Spanish. My host organization and the junta met with community members to see if this was a project that they would like to implement. And the communities were really in to this; this wasn’t one of those projects where a foreign organization dumps a bunch of money and supplies somewhere and then splits. Members of the communities set up their own schedule: which families would be receiving toilets, how they would proceed with construction, and so on.

After a few months of juggling around schedules, grants in foreign languages, quotes on materials, and a few last minute trips to the Peace Corps office in Quito, the project was approved and we got the money. Construction is currently underway for 35 families to each build a composting toilet. Our team monitors the progress and instructs the community of the proper use and maintenance.

Once materials and equipment were purchased and delivered, my role in this project has been sort of hands off, which, I think is exactly what is expected of us as Peace Corps Volunteers. We’re not here to just do things for people; this isn’t charity. Our role is to facilitate good ideas, get the ball rolling on projects, and let the communities do what they need to do for themselves. I’m not deluding myself; without my presence, that community meeting would have probably ended up with the people eventually getting their latrines. I simply introduced an environmentally friendly view of sanitation, and then provided a means of financing.

Overall, I’d say it was a success; and I’ll be spending the remainder of my service making sure that there aren’t any problems when it comes to actually composting the human waste. I strongly encourage other volunteers who are interested in this type of project to get in touch with your Program Managers, read all of the available literature from the office, and start talking with your community.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Not really a blog post ... Three articles I wrote for our Peace Corps Ecuador volunteer magazine

Hey everyone ... yes it has been a long time. I do plan on writing some blog posts in the future, but until then I´m going to post three articles that I wrote for our in-country volunteer magazine El Clima. One is a point-counterpoint I did with a female volunteer discussing whether it is easier to be a male or female volunteer in Ecuador (it´s much easier to be a guy, but I wrote the opposite.) The second is a fake advice column I wrote, and the third is a profile on Ecuavolley, and how it helped me integrate into our site. Anyway, enjoy.

Point Counterpoint

After deep consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador is much easier for women. I have tons of reasons why, but I’ve boiled my argument down to the most important aspects of volunteer life.

First, there is the issue of bathroom breaks over long bus rides. Now, I know what every female reader is thinking: what is this guy crazy? Sure, on the surface, it might seem like women get the shit end of the stick here. I mean, bathroom breaks are few and far between and more often than not entail a fifteen second stop along the side of some road somewhere. Not exactly a viable option for those of us who can’t pee standing up.

But these limited pit stops are exactly why it sucks to be a guy. What am I supposed to do on a fifteen second break? That’s entirely way to much pressure for me to relax and let go. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I’ll be way too bladder shy to get any sort of a flow started. And when the bus starts moving again and I haven’t even produced so much as a few drops, well the pain just gets worse. To be so close and yet to achieve so little … it’s maddening.

At least women know that they don’t even have the option. They have time to mentally prepare before a long bus ride. And if nature calls during the journey? Well at least they are positive in the fact that they have basically no options. The worst part of being a guy is the crazy notion that maybe this time will be different, although deep inside we know it never is. Still, I might as well try right?

Second: the catcalls. Again, you might be wondering how this could even be perceived as a problem for men. Unfortunately, it’s this type of narrow-minded thinking that leads us hombres to suffer in silence. Did it ever come across to anybody that maybe guys would like to be complimented every once in a while? Hey I just shaved and put on a clean shirt … where’s my validation here? Would it kill anyone to say, “Hey Rob … looking good!” every now and then.

My fellow brothers, hold your heads up high. You are looking good. Just because random people don’t make a verbal show of complimenting our better features, doesn’t mean that we aren’t looking fantastic.

Which brings me to my third point: the reina competitions. Now I know I’m not the only guy that wants to parade around in a tight little bathing suit in front of my whole community, competing for the title of queen. Sometimes I feel like a reina victory would be the crown jewel in my service as a volunteer. Think of all the doors I would be opening to men across the country!Sure, I haven’t heard of any female PCV’s actually entering any of these contests, but what’s important is that they at least have the potential to do so. Why is it that only the women get the opportunity to fight for the crown?

Lastly, there’s the issue of drinking. As a guy, sometimes I might not want to get blackout drunk on a Tuesday afternoon. But if I walk by a group of men passing around the bottle, it’s like all of the sudden all of them are overcome with the need to call me over and make sure I start drinking with them.

Maybe I should have stronger willpower and just say no thanks, but when a group of people starts shouting “Roberto!” I feel like a celebrity! This is probably the same feeling that Norm from that TV show Cheers got every time he walked into the bar. And look how that guy wound up: a morbidly obese alcoholic that spent all of his free time at some dive bar in Boston. My wife never gets called out drinking, and I think it’s totally unfair.

In some arguments, both sides might have valid points that make for a strong case. To be honest, not everything can be decided right-or-wrong, black-or-white. In this case, however, I think the facts speak for themselves. It’s much easier to be a female PCV in Ecuador. To my fellow men I say this: stay strong. Life isn’t always fair. Just try to imagine and hope for a future where, someday, somehow, maybe male PCV’s will have an equal footing, and all the advantages that go along with being a female volunteer.

Ask Rob

Each issue I’ll be answering volunteer questions covering every aspect of volunteer life.

Rob, why doesn’t my counterpart like me? He never returns my phone calls. I’m starting to think that this won’t be a fruitful working relationship.

-Triste en Tunguraghua

Cheer up Triste! I know just what you’re dealing with here. Sure my counterpart came over and said hi during my site visit, but after that I felt like I was left high and dry.

The problem is you! You’re not spending enough time earning his time and attention. The truth is, every single Ecuadorian wants nothing more than to spend all of his or her time with you. They just feel bad that they’re not sharing you enough with everybody else. These “distant counterpart” problems are often a symptom of your counterpart actually feeling like he doesn’t deserve to spend all of his time with you.

You have to be the one to make the effort and show that you’d like nothing better than to work with him. Get in his face! Try going to his house every day, early in the morning, and waiting there until everyone goes to sleep at night. That’s one sure way to get his attention.

Think outside the box! We had this brass band come to town for a fiesta once, and you know what I did? I paid that band fifty bucks to play outside my counterpart’s house until he came out and talked with me. He was so excited!

Dear Rob, I’m having trouble budgeting my living allowance from month to month. Do you have any advice on how I can reign in my spending without sacrificing my weekly beach getaways?

-Chiro en Chimborazo

Chiro, thanks for writing in. Most volunteers go through exactly what you’re talking about at one point or another during service. The most common advice deals with spending more time at site as the easiest way to save some cash. Others have suggested spending more time cooking in rather than eating out. Not only will you develop some serious skills in the kitchen, but you’ll also get a little more variety than your standard chicken and rice almuerzo.

But lucky for you, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to give up a thing! Apparently I had some distant uncle who just died in a mysterious plane accident. He had been living in Nigeria for the past thirty years and he was seriously loaded. Cha-Ching! One of his associates told me that that they are having trouble finding any next of kin, and I can help out. He has millions that I can get my hands on, as long as I help his friend and give him a cut. All he needs is my bank account routing numbers and I should be seeing the cash in no time! Can you believe my luck?

Anyway, let’s meet up in Quito … drinks are on me!

Rob, how’s it going? Listen, I have all of these sores running up and down my arms. Plus, when I wake up, the left side of my body is always numb. Should I call the PCMO?

-Enferma en El Empalme

No way! Enferma, I used to be just like you. Every time I felt a little off I’d go running to the Peace Corps doctors. I found out that there’s a much easier way!

First of all, you’re sores are obviously because you opened your refrigerator too fast and were standing a little too close. When the door of the fridge is opened this way, a vortex of cold air rushes over the arms and throughout the body. I’m guessing you had some fish in the fridge. When fish mixes with refrigerated air, it causes bacteria that, when sped up fast enough, cause sores over the affected body parts. Fish germs plus cold air plus you opening it too fast and there you go, sores. Always leave fish out on the counter!

As for the numbness, my guess is you have been soaping up in the shower before you shampoo. While this might be normal in the northern hemisphere, down south everything is backwards … just watch the water drain down the toilet if you’re skeptical.

The solution is simple. Just hop on the Macuchi that goes from Quevedo to Quito. Halfway outside of Santo Domingo, look for this guy who will be selling these herbal remedies on the bus. You’re going to want to buy a lot, because you have to take like three pills at least three times a day. But you’ll be good to go!

Dear Rob, I’m having a lot of trouble at town fiestas … especially the bailes. I just can’t seem to dance. The worst part is, everyone dances, so I’m afraid that I’ll look even worse if I don’t give it a shot. What should I do?

- Avergonzado en Anconcito

I hate to break it to you, but there’s only one solution: never dance. I’ve found that it’s simply impossible for gringos to learn how to dance. At bailes, when someone asks you to dance, simply refuse, adamantly. Just say over and over again in a really loud and obnoxious voice, “Yo no bailo!” Then just stand against the wall all night with you arms crossed against your chest. You’re sending a strong message here. It might seem rude, but in no time nobody will ask you to dance anymore.

Volleyball Article

Aside from my stunning good looks and devil-may-care attitude, when I first arrived at site, I felt like I had little to offer my new community. While speaking Spanish amongst all the other gringos during training gave me a sort of linguistic confidence, I quickly grew frustrated, struggling to make connections and clearly in dire need of further study. When I did manage to have a somewhat decent conversation with a vecino, I quickly ran out of things to say once I finished the basic, “I’m from the US, blah blah blah …”

And then volleyball came along, and my life got so much better. Like I’m sure as at most of our sites, volleyball is a big f’n deal here. Even more so, I was delighted to find out, than soccer, at which I suck.

I never really played volleyball much back in the States. In fact, my only experience with the sport was being immediately cut from the team during high school tryouts (along with rejections from the basketball, hockey, wrestling, and girls’ badminton teams.)

Lucky for me, volleyball here is a completely different sport. As I’m sure everybody already knows, while we play six-on-six back home, they do it three-on-three here. That’s not the only difference: the net here stands at a monster 2.8 meters, almost the size of a basketball net. Also, instead of those soft white balls used back home, Ecuavolley (yes, the people here actually call it Ecuavolley … look it up) bruises the wrists with a number-five soccer ball. That’s the kind the pro’s used during the World Cup.

Anyway, after I realized that my size – I think I’m currently the tallest person living in Cotopaxi – would be of great asset, I started begging people to let me play with them.

My road to volleyball stardom had a rocky start. Part of it was me not knowing how to hit a ball with my wrists, but the main obstacle lied in the very way games are started here. Say a bunch of guys want to start a game. Ok, so first everybody stands in a circle. Then, instead of just pairing up and playing, everybody fights for about half an hour or so about who should play. After a tentative six people are chosen, each player has to agree that the teams are fair. Usually, one person backs out last second, and the proceedings get reset to the initial rounds.

This matchmaking is probably the most frustrating aspect of the sport. Teams aren’t made based on how well three players can play together; the emphasis is on making sure that a player is of equal skill to whoever he will be playing against on the opposing team. To make things more complicated, there is always more than one group of people trying to get a game going. The general rule is whoever has teams selected first gets the cancha. So there have been plenty of times where, after endless negotiations, I’ve been this close to playing, only to be beaten to the turf by different teams.

Also, and not to put too fine a point on this, but I really didn’t know how to play volleyball at first. I couldn’t do anything with the ball, and my attempts to spike left me feeling like my hand-eye coordination hadn’t improved at all since high school. Still, I kept showing up every afternoon, hoping I’d get a chance to learn the ropes.

Sure enough, poco a poco, I took to the sport. I still can’t serve, but I at least know what to do with the ball when it comes my way. Where my technical skills of the sport are lacking, however, I more than make up for it in spiking. Getting the timing down was pretty straightforward, and after that it was only a matter jumping as high as I can and hitting the ball, also as hard as I can.

Call me a one-trick pony, but it totally works. A highlight for me was winning a tournament in La Maná behind the cantón police station. There were actually men betting and shouting at us from behind bars as we played. Surreal is definitely the word.

Volleyball facilitated and made possible my cultural integration. Hopefully I would’ve found some other way without it, but through this sport, I improved my Spanish and stayed active during those initial months of some serious downtime. Most importantly, I got to know basically everybody in town. Well, every guy at least. Unfortunately, at my site anyway, it’s a pretty gender segregated event. But in an effort to get to know the women, I’m currently trying to earn a spot as a candidate for reina. Those sixteen-year-old girls have nothing on me.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Walking around with my hands in my pockets

Well, it’s been a while since I last posted something. Lately I just can’t seem to think of anything to write about. I guess the newness of this experience is starting to wear off. So far everything’s been about how different life can be here, how we are sort of just fumbling along trying to figure out how everyone operates. But there are only so many first times. After a while, life has its way of leveling out, and a lot of what at first felt novel or strange has now become something that feels more like normal. It’s weird, but it’s also really amazing how after a while you kind of just adapt to and become part of your surroundings.

And it’s definitely a good thing; I mean, soaking up new circumstances and relearning basically everything has been thrilling, but also really exhausting. There were, and still are, days when just getting up in the morning and going outside seems impossible. Just that fact that we live in such a small town is at times this crazy concept that I can’t get my head around. To walk out the door is to have to say hello and probably have at least a light conversation with everyone I see along the way. I compare that with what my life was like last year, where heading out for the day meant riding my bike to work or making a beeline to the subway. It makes me miss the anonymity that comes with living in a city, with being where you’re from, with not being a foreigner.

I’ll have really crazy days where I just feel like everyone is watching, staring at me. Everything I do feels alien. I know I can never really blend in here, but am I walking normal? I’ve tried to slow down my step here, but am I walking too slowly? How’s my posture? Is it normal to walk around with my hands in my pockets? When I’m greeting people in the street, is my voice coming off as too forceful? My hello, it felt a little unnatural. Are people picking up on this stuff or is it just in my head?

Peace Corps warned us about this during training; they called it the fishbowl effect. It boils down to feeling like you’re a fish stuck in a tiny bowl, constantly on display with nowhere to hide. Whereas in the beginning, the more notable differences between you and your community were a great opportunity to start a conversation – wow the food is so different here, let me tell you about how it is back home – it would be a pretty lame exchange, for example, to point out to an Ecuadorian that a lot of people here walk around with their hands clasped behind their backs while I’m used to walking around with my arms at my sides. A really lame conversation. So that’s an observation that I just have to keep to myself. But the difference exists. And even if it would be crazy to talk about something so trivial, the fact that I’ve noticed this difference means that there’s a good chance the people here have picked up on it also. Do I try walking with my hands behind my back? I have, and it feels uncomfortable because I don’t usually do it. Plus, I wonder if people look at me like I’m trying too hard or something. So I go back to normal, only to get even more paranoid. Do I look like I’m fidgeting? Why’s the gringo moving his arms around so much?

If this sounds totally crazy, well it is totally crazy. Living here at times can be an exercise in not going insane, in just constantly telling yourself, nobody’s looking at you, chill out, take a deep breath. Because I know that most of this nonsense is just in my head.

Thankfully, as I was starting to say before I got kind of sidetracked, the craziness is starting to subside. I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely natural here, but it’s getting closer.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

6 guys 1 cup

South America just celebrated Carnaval, a Mardi Gras that, for me, completely enhances any definitions of the word “party.” I’ve never really celebrated Fat Tuesday back home, and while New Orleans is supposedly the best, I can’t imagine anybody going harder than the Ecuadorians. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, Carnaval isn’t just a one-day fiesta; it’s a whole week.

Maybe about a month before, everybody kept talking about how excited they were for the festivities to begin. And people were asking me the same question: was I going to play? I had never even heard of Carnaval before, so I had no idea what anyone was talking about. Play what? I’d find out soon enough.

“Playing Carnaval” can mean many different things. One of the most common methods of play involves water balloons. You’ll just be walking down the street and … WHACK! … water balloon to the face. Everyone’s dying with laughter and you’re standing there, soaking wet. So that’s how it’s going to be, huh? Plotting revenge can prove difficult seeing as how Ecuadorians have mastered the technique of stealth bombing. A split second after you get nailed, you’ll turn around and see either nobody there (frustrating,) a really old person that you know had nothing to do with it (really frustrating,) or a huge group of people with the perpetrator lost in the crowd (infuriating.) Revenge, well personal revenge anyway, is basically an impossibility.

I’d like to point out a key difference right now between people from the US and Ecuadorians. I don’t care how great a party might be back at home, if somebody hit me in the face with a water balloon, there would be a fight. I mean, haha, now I’m soaked. What am I supposed to go and get changed now? What about all the stuff in my pockets, cell phone, credit cards, etc? Here I’ve seen men in their fifties take two the chest in the middle of the day and immediately start to laugh it off with the rest of the crowd. They are just unbelievably easygoing.

I hope I didn’t seem uptight, but there was definitely a split second after every time I got soaked where I wanted to blow up in some sort of berserker rage. Luckily, I’d quickly find my center and remember that I’m supposed to be smiling, avoiding any international incidents. Unluckily, water balloons would turn out to be the least of my problems.

Water balloons were just the warm-up. Well, water balloons filled with water were the warm-up. Pretty soon I’d see people covered in dust. Apparently it’s OK to not only soak somebody, but also to then throw a fistful of flour at them. Or even better, let’s mix flour and water and then fill it up in a water balloon. Or eggs. Or let’s just skip the whole water balloon part and let’s hide on the roof with a bucket and wait for somebody to pass by.

And this was just the really sneaky stuff. Some of the more overt attacks involved people running up to you and smearing this – I still don’t even know what to call it – stuff all over your face. The stuff was thick and oily, and usually a dark blue, red, or green. Someone told me it was margarine mixed with food coloring, but really, who knows?

What if they run out of stuff? Well it just happens to be the rainy season here, and it turns out that mud can make a pretty good on-the-spot replacement. In fact, let’s you, me, and three other guys take that guy over there and just throw him in the mud. If he puts up a fight, too bad, he’s totally overpowered. Sure it might turn into a sort of weird mud wrestling match, but come on it’ll be hilarious. So what if we’ve all been drinking all day long, I’m sure nothing bad will happen.

After a few days I felt like a rat. Whenever I left my apartment, I’d go really fast, running right up against the walls whenever possible, and constantly looking around in all directions. I got pretty good at avoiding the surprise ambushes, but sometimes I wasn’t so lucky. Sometimes I saw it coming, and I knew that there was nothing I could do. Like whenever I rode around in the back of a pickup truck, for example, I knew I’d be toast. They’d be waiting on the side of the roads with buckets and hoses; it was like shooting gringos in a barrel. On any given day, I usually only had to change my clothes two or three times, something I’d consider a success.

Like I mentioned before, the drinking was constant. Beer during the day and whiskey at night. Groups of men would be sitting around stacks of “jabas,” (pronounced haba) a case of twelve 22oz. beers. Drinking here is tricky business. Back home, ninety percent of the time I’m a pretty good judge of knowing how much alcohol is in my system. Based on this knowledge, I can either choose to speed up the process or slow it down a notch. In Ecuador, this just isn’t possible.

When drinking, I’m used to everybody not only drinking what they want to drink, but having their own drink and drinking at their own pace. The way it works here is sitting in a circle, usually just men, with one small cup. One person is in charge of serving. This person fills up the one cup with beer (or whiskey, or moonshine) and, one at a time, you pound the glass of beer. When everybody has been served, the person serving drinks a glass for himself and the circle starts all over again.

You are completely at a loss of control; the glass just keeps coming and coming, so it’s only a matter of time before you’ve had too much. Plus, since you’re not serving, you have no choice what you’re drinking. I mean it’s not like there is anything other than beer, but sometimes if the beer is warm they’ll just add an ice cube, or some cold coke. Definitely not my favorite way to drink, but you’re just part of the circle and everybody’s doing the same thing.

So the days are spent drinking beer, playing volleyball, and throwing water balloons. On Sunday night there was a huge dance for the whole community. These dances are pretty fun, but they have their own formulas and routines. The dancing itself is pretty straightforward; if you’re like me and absolutely can’t dance, you kind of just shuffle back and forth. As long as you can keep the rhythm, then there’s no problem. The way it goes is this: everybody dances, then everybody stops and drinks about ten or fifteen minutes before the next song.

The songs are long … like sometimes half an hour long. And rarely do Joannah and I get to dance with each other. As soon as a song starts, there are maybe ten guys racing to me to ask my permission to dance this song with Joannah. So then somebody finds a partner for me and we start dancing. Unless you’re dating or married, you never look the person you are dancing with in the face. Or talk to them. You basically just dance, or at least try to keep the rhythm, for half an hour. After the dance everybody pounds some whiskey before it’s time to do it all over again.

These dances usually last until at least 6 am, but Jo and I usually run out of gas much earlier. Everyday I’d wake up and see everybody right back at it with the circles of beer. I seriously don’t know how I could possibly keep up with them.

This lasted for a whole week. I’m telling you, I’ve never seen anybody party like this.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Running late

I read in The New Yorker a month or two ago that the people of Peru lose a collective nine billion hours each year to tardiness. It must be a regional thing, because – my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, you know what I’m talking about – Ecuadorians are constantly running late. Hours late. They call it “la hora ecuatoriana” which translates to “the Ecuadorian hour.”

To be fair, or to be more culturally sensitive, I guess I shouldn’t start off a blog entry by saying “Ecuadorians are always late.” It is, maybe, all a matter of perspective. So the whole country has a different method of keeping track of and perceiving time, who am I to judge? All I know is that this, like pretty much everything else, definitely took some getting used to. Or I should say that it’s been a process of ongoing adjustment.

The thing is, I don’t think this Ecuadorian hour is something that you can adjust to. It’s not an exact science; it’s something you have to just kind of know. Let me explain. When we first arrived at our site, we would naturally show up to meetings and whatnot when people told us to. Huge mistake. We would have something at, say, 8:00am. At 8:00am, we would be there, ready to go. We’d be lucky if the first person showed up before 9:30.

You know what they say, fool me ten times, shame on me, right? So I’d start fixing my arrival times. I’d start showing up fifteen minutes, half an hour, and even an hour late. Still, I can never seem to get it right. I think Ecuadorian time really means let’s making the gringos wait around for a while.

One of the first town socials since our arrival was this huge dance for All Saints Day. All the signs around town said that the party started at 8:00. We showed up at around 8:30pm and stood there by ourselves for about an hour and a half until people started trickling in. So the next time there was a dance – it was maybe a few weeks before Christmas – Jo and I made sure not to show up until at least 10:00. They must have been on to us, because, again, we were waiting by our lonesome for another hour or so.

The problem is that I’m even bothering to look at the time in the first place. My idea that I can time my arrival an hour or so late – and therefore be “on time” – is doomed to failure specifically because I’m not actually adjusting to the lax time standards; rather, I’m just setting my watch back. I’m convinced that the people here don’t have any clue what time it is when they decide to get going. They can just feel that it’s time to go.

And nobody’s shy about being late – really late – either. In fact, it’s almost publicized. A big custom here is that, upon entering a room or meeting a group of people, one must greet everybody individually, that is, handshakes all around and kisses on the cheek for all the women. You might think that if a meeting is already well under way, than this process could be skipped, as you would try to discreetly slip in so as to not disturb events already in progress. Again, wrong.

When you’re involved in any group function here, people will walk in whenever they feel like it and make a gigantic entrance. First will be a general greeting, “buenas tardes!” really loud to let everyone know to stop everything for a second. After the speaker or whatever business being conducted comes to a halt, the latecomer will then go around and say his or her hellos to every single person in sight. Then the speaker or whoever will start up again, only to be interrupted probably about ten minutes later.

This rant of mine may seem like a huge complain, but actually, I’ve grown rather fond of the Ecuadorian hour. In fact, I feel like this is the system of time that I was naturally meant to follow. I’ve never much been a fan of letting calendars or schedules dictate the layout of my day. Now I don’t have to. Our town is so small that I can just kind of see when everybody is gathering, and I’ll go and join them. Nobody’s ever sitting me down for discussions about how my tardiness is affecting my performance. On the contrary, people here are always telling me to loosen up.

I feel absolutely great showing up two hours late for a meeting. And if it has already begun? Well, I’ve always loved grand entrances and stealing the spotlight anyway, so everything just feels right. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m meeting someone two hours ago and I really should go take a shower and get ready.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bugs ... everywhere

And I thought the rats were bad.

Well, they were, and thankfully we haven’t seen any in our new place. I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with the fact that we keep our kitchen as close to immaculate as humanely possible. All it would take is one stray morsel of food to fall in that space between the counter and the oven. As it would begin to rot, a rat undoubtedly would be drawn to the smell, and, after making short work of our scraps, he would run back to tell his buddies about all of the great food we have hidden in cheap tupperware and in between layers of flimsy plastic wrap. We would have to move. I’m rambling already.

Let’s hope it never comes to that. But while we have so far kept the rats a bay, there’s another problem that all of the cleaning products in Ecuador and even our meticulously cleaned kitchen have failed to prevent: bugs. Goddam subtropical climate, they are everywhere. From the microscopic to the so-big-I’ve-nearly-crapped-my-pants, we have them all.

In our apartments in New York, Joannah and I were always pretty lucky when it came to insects. The few times – usually during the changing of the seasons – when a cockroach would find its way into our bathroom, both of us would follow a pretty strict game plan: freak the hell out, panic, then get into a huge fight over who would have to kill it. After one of us smushed it, we would then get into another huge fight over whose turn it was to clean up the mess. Situations like these could last all night, if we had our act together.

The roaches here must be what New York roaches have evolved from centuries ago. Much like regular roaches, these things can crawl around at near lightning speeds. You’ll turn on the bathroom lights at night and you’ll know that you saw something crawl behind the garbage can, but you’ll rarely get a really good look at one while it’s trying to escape. Unlike regular roaches, for some sick reason these seemingly prehistoric creatures are equipped with the ability to fly. Unfortunately, they don’t fly very well. I’ll explain in a sec.

At least in our community, screening simply doesn’t exist. We have these giant windows in our apartment that, due to the climate, must be left open at all times, even when we’re not there (when we went back to New York for Christmas, we closed the place up tight, and when we came back a week later, the walls were covered in mold.) There’s not even a spot on the windows where screens would go if we had them. So the insects have free range to come and go – although it’s usually just come and then stay – as they please.

Which brings me back to the flying cockroaches. We’ll be relaxing in our apartment when one of these bad boys will fly into through a window. I’ve mentioned that they don’t fly well. It’s not that they don’t fly fast, or high, it’s just that they appear to have no sense of direction or orientation. As soon as one flies in, it flies right into the nearest wall … and again, and again until it knocks itself to the floor, upside down. Now is the time for action; there’s usually a ten to fifteen second gap while it struggles to get back on its feet before it either starts flying aimlessly again or crawls off to hide in some corner.

I really wish that Joannah and I still had the luxury of freaking out and fighting for a few hours, but we really don’t want something that disgusting starting a family somewhere in our house. It usually works like this: as soon as the bug flies in, we’ll both spring to our feet and grab the nearest flip-flop or shoe. Since there’s no predicting where this thing is going to fly, we’ll start waving our weapons around our bodies. The point is not to try to knock it out of the air. We are simply doing our best to minimize the chances that it would fly onto say, my shirt or Joannah’s hair. Once it’s down, we go for the kill immediately. Something like this doesn’t happen every day, but it’s definitely a weekly situation.

Nobody likes roaches, but for some strange reason, everybody thinks the six to eight inch long grasshoppers here are just adorable. Kids are always running around, grabbing them by their wings, sticking them on my back when I’m not paying attention, telling me that there’s one on my back, and then laughing hysterically while I lurch into a fit trying to get it off.

In all seriousness, these guys aren’t so terrible. Roaches are constantly moving and squirming and twisting their giant antennae around, but the grasshoppers just sit still. And they’re not that easily provoked either. Obviously, grabbing one by the wings is going to get it upset, but even if you try to brush one away with a broom, it might not even budge. They may be peaceful, gentle beings that don’t bite and won’t really bother you, but they are still f’n huge, so them being in our apartment is kind of an issue.

It’s really embarrassing making such a scene out of a bug that three year olds will toss back and forth to each other, but Joannah and I have not yet mustered up the courage to leave them alone. We actually haven’t seen one in a week or two, but there is usually at least one somewhere in our room when we wake up in the morning. And because they are so still, finding it is always an unpleasant surprise. I’ll be on the computer for a while, and realize that it’s been sitting two inches from my hand the whole time.

One time Joannah paid this really little kid a candy bar to get one out of the house, which turned out to be a huge mistake. All of the neighborhood kids, crazy for our candy, started basically throwing them at us, threatening more if we didn’t deliver the sweets.

Big bugs suck, but the little ones can be equally annoying. Every time we step foot out of the house, we get eaten alive by these tiny mosquito like bugs. Only, whereas mosquitoes have the decency to numb your skin before they bite, these things hurt. It’s like getting pricked with a needle. The itch afterwards is terrible. For some reason the locals don’t get targeted as much as we do. Lucky us.

At night the bugs are everywhere. There are beetles, mosquitoes, giant moths … you name it. Some nights are worse than others, but our house always has at least a few unwanted guests. Thankfully, we have a nice net surrounding our bed, which on those really buggy nights gives us something close to a sanctuary from the outside world. The one thing the net didn’t protect us from was scabies: microscopic bugs that live in your bed sheets. Apparently, scabies will burrow under your skin to lay their eggs. You know you have them by the pencil dot marks you find all over your body. That was definitely a first for us.

Nighttime is definitely when the bugs are at their worst, and usually while the sun is up, things are relatively quiet. Still, there are bound to be a few surprises during the daytime hours.

Just a few hours ago, Joannah brought down a load of laundry that had been drying outside all day. And then she sets up the ironing table. I’m definitely not trying to come off as complaining, but since when do my t-shirts and jeans need to be ironed? Apparently Joannah’s mom gave her a tip to iron all the clothes in case any stowaways have tried to make your clothes their home while they were outside drying.

It seemed a little obsessive, but whatever, we did already have scabies. I was busy hammering some nails into the wall for a would-be shelf, when Joannah let out a scream so loud, and so terrified, that the hammer flew out of my hand and smashed into the opposite wall. A scream like that can only mean one thing: bug. I instinctively ran into the kitchen while asking what happened. It could have been a snake, she screamed so loud, but it could also have been a ladybug that had just gotten to close.

Joannah had been ironing my jeans when a giant spider had crawled out. I’m talking like five inches giant. It had hair on its legs and two visible claws popping out of its head. For the moment it was crawling around on one of our plastic chairs, but Jo and I were both basically too paralyzed with fear to know how to get this monster out of our house.

Before coming to Ecuador, I had basically expected to find spiders bigger than I had ever seen before. And there are tons. One time I even saw a tarantula in our backyard. But on one of our first nights here, I was taking a shower and saw a nickel-sized spider in the shower. I went to kill it, but instead I decided to cut it a deal. For the next two years, I told it, I wouldn’t kill any spiders as long as they kept their distance. Obviously I was bound to see them, even in my apartment, but so long as they stayed in the corners and other out of the way spaces, I would give them a pass. I figured they weren’t technically bugs anyway, and they were too busy killing actual nuisances to spend their time terrorizing me.

This giant spider climbing out of my pants and holding fort on one of our chairs totally threw a wrench in our agreement. But maybe this was a test. Could the spider be provoking me to see if I would attack? Even if I could somehow kill this beast, would the deal be off therefore inviting all of his friends to make my life a nightmare? I decided that I wouldn’t kill it unless I absolutely couldn’t get it out of the house without touching it. Luckily, it was still on the chair. I bravely told Joannah to open the door and then valiantly threw the whole chair outside. The spider landed just outside our doorway.

I had to be sure it wouldn’t come back, I mean, it was only a few inches outside and was staring straight back in, so I tried to shoo it away. With a nearby broom, I went to give it a little push, but before I could make contact this thing moved maybe two feet in less than half a second. It was obviously holding back; it could have been running laps around us if it wanted to. Next I tried moving the broom really close to it, without touching, just to scare it back a little further, but now it stood its ground. It was as if it knew precisely when I was faking it and when I actually meant to touch it. I didn’t want to see it move that fast any more, but I kept touching it little by little until it was about eight feet away, backed up into some corner.

I walked back inside and through a window I could see it where I had left it. It was just sitting there, but definitely facing right back at me, almost like it was still looking at me. This staring contest went on for at least ten minutes; I just felt like as long as I knew where it was, there was no chance of it surprising me again in the not so distant future. Finally, I turned my back, but only for a second. And when I looked to see if it was still there, it had vanished.

Who knows where it is right now? I’m going out of my mind. Is the deal still on? I mean, I didn’t try to kill it or anything. But maybe he perceived me throwing the chair outside and poking it multiple times with a broom as an assassination attempt. I just wish that I knew where it was so I could at least try and explain myself.

I’ve attached a quick video of the spider on our chair so you can see for yourself how big it is and that my ensuing craziness isn’t completely irrational.

Oh yea and we had ants in our kitchen for a while, and we couldn’t get rid of them, but then my mom bought these poison bait station and that problem cleared right up.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lost in translation (yet another cliche title ...)

Here’s a funny little story about me not being able to speak Spanish and the chaos that follows when I try to act like I know what I’m talking about.

So Joannah and I were giving a nutrition class to a women’s group at a small community about 20 minutes away from our site. The goal is that, eventually, Peace Corps wants us to convince each family here to build and maintain a small organic garden. At this class, we were trying to sell the group on the benefits of home gardening. I told them that it was much cheaper to grow your own vegetables, that it’s not that difficult, and the produce that you collect should generally be a lot healthier.

One part of my argument was that homegrown vegetables don’t have any preservatives, or chemicals. So I kept saying the word “preservativo” which, I thought, translated to “preservative” in Spanish. I started to get some funny looks from the women, but I stammered on. By the end of the class, I knew that I had messed up something, but I couldn’t pinpoint where I had gone wrong.

Anyway, cutting to the chase here, I later found out that the word “preservativo” in Spanish translates to “condom.” It’s no wonder there was confusion in the crowd that day as I tried to preach the benefits of condom-less organic vegetables.

Joannah has a similar tale of embarrassment and miscommunication. Although, to be fair, whereas my story was a result of not knowing how to speak Spanish, Joannah sort of had reason to believe that what happened to her was the fault of her Spanish teachers back in high school.

You see, when Joannah and I were learning basic Spanish in our respective high schools, we were both taught that the word “bolsa” meant “bag.” One day Jo was helping to administer an English test to the local students and found out that in Ecuador, the translation was slightly different. During the test, Joannah spotted a student constantly reaching for something in his backpack. Calling out the cheater, she asked him, “What do you have in your bolsa? Give me your bolsa.” The whole classroom immediately burst into laughter.

Joannah wasn’t entirely off the mark here. I mean, the word “bolsa” kind of translates to “bag” … well, “sack” would actually be more like it. In English, this “sack,“ it’s a reference to a part of the male body. Hopefully I’m making myself clear here without being too vulgar.

Yes, we mess up the Spanish pretty often, and thankfully, no, not every screw up has to deal with condoms or scrotums, but overall, the language integration is, for both of us, way more of a challenge than we thought it would be. After over six months living in Ecuador, during everyday conversation, we have gotten used to stammering, sounding like idiots, and looks of confusion from those to whom we are speaking.

Which isn’t to say that we can’t entirely get our points across, nor that we aren’t improving every week. It’s just that instead of a our progress being a straight line going up, it’s more like a stock market graph, with peaks and lows, all hopefully moving in a gradually upward direction. There are some days where I feel like I’m almost fluent; I’ll be talking fast without having to constantly translate everything in my head before it comes out of my mouth. Other days will be the complete opposite, where I can’t understand anybody and vice versa.

Jo and I just came back from a weeklong Peace Corps meeting called “Reconnect,” where all of the volunteers met up with the staff and discussed how our first four months on our own had being going. Part of this meeting was a required 15 minute presentation, in Spanish, about our experiences, our communities, and our plans for future projects.

During my talk, I went through this rehearsed part where I was trying to explain how it’s very easy to be frustrated on a daily basis: people giving us higher prices, people cutting in line, etc. Instead of fighting with everyone when difficult situations occur, I was trying to say, it’s better to exercise a little patience. That’s when the Peace Corps language facilitator cut in and explained that you can’t use the word “fight” in Spanish to convey arguing or disagreement. The word in Spanish literally means to get into a physical fight. So here’s a perfect example of me speaking grammatically correct Spanish, and still not being able to get my ideas across.

And sometimes I’m not sure if I’m learning Spanish as much as I’m learning how life goes on down here and how people operate. For example, the other day I was riding in the back of a pickup truck with about ten other people, and a lady said something to me in Spanish. I immediately banged on the window, signaling the driver to stop so this woman could get off. My reaction was totally natural, almost unconscious. Afterwards, I was trying to remember exactly what she had asked me to do, and either I wasn’t paying attention to what she said, or I hadn’t understood the words. But it didn’t even matter; I didn’t miss a beat in what I was asked to do. You get so used to doing certain things that in some situations language isn’t even necessary, it’s just a formality.

I wonder, if everyone down here spoke English, and I had just arrived in country, and I found myself in that same situation, where someone had asked me, “Hey, bang on the window for me,” or something like that, I probably wouldn’t have understood what was being asked. So, for me anyway, I think that knowing how to conjugate verbs or memorizing vocabulary, while important, will only get me so far in terms of actual communication.

And there are always going to be stupid mistakes. A while ago I was talking to a mother with her one year old daughter, and the daughter would cry hysterically every time I looked at her. I tried to say to the baby, “You don’t like me very much,” but it came out as, “I don’t like you very much.” The mom made a face and I immediately realized and corrected my mistake, no harm done. But I just can’t let myself feel too bad. I mean, I make stupid comments in English all the time. Communication will never be perfect in any language; there will always be awkward misunderstandings.

It’s hard to measure improvement on a daily basis, but we can definitely feel that it´s coming along. Slowly but surely, hopefully over the course of the next year and a half, our Spanish skills will be closer to where we want them to be. Either that or one of these days someone’s just going to punch me in the face.