Sunday, July 19, 2009

Doing the "Monkey Walk"

After a work-induced hiatus that has kept me from posting on my blog for a couple of months, I cleared my calendar this weekend and took a 5-hour bus ride into the jungle to visit my friend Kelly, a Peace Corps Volunteer who has the most remote station in the province and is ending her service in a couple of weeks. She invited me to join her and a local family she knows on a “monkey walk,” her last jungle adventure before she leaves.

We crossed the river in a canoe with Kelly’s friend Yolanda and hiked half an hour to the farm of Alirio and Edith.

The "before" canoe.

After a breakfast of fresh chifles (fried plaintains), coffee, and bread, we departed for the hike with Alirio guiding, Kelly and I following, and Edith, Yolanda, and Nelly taking up the rear. (Kelly and I were impressed that the women joined us, since usually on these kinds of expeditions the women are either expected to or want to stay home and cook.) In between ran two of the most energetic eight-year-olds I’ve ever met. They scampered up and down the line and were the first to charge through the foliage after Alirio cleared the trail with his machete.

Alirio on the "trail."

I use “trail” here as a euphemism, as you can see in the photos. We were miles from anything resembling a marked trail or ranger station. Most of the four hours involved slogging, climbing, grabbing vines (watching out for thorns, spiders, and slugs), tromping, slipping and sliding (though I'm proud to say I didn't wipe out once), and sweating.

Kelly contemplating whatever mysteries might lie beneath her feet.

Me, making a middle-aged attempt to hang on a vine.

One of the kids, hanging on a vine for real.

Although Alirio has cleared some of his land to plant corn, 100-acre plot we hiked through is primary rainforest. This kind of vegetation used to dominate the province, but especially in the last 40 years as oil companies and others built road to reach the eastern part of the country, small and medium farms began eating away at the native vegetation as farmers and ranchers converted it to cropland and pasture. Alirio’s father, who owns the land, has kept a good portion of it untouched so he could use it for occasional subsistence hunting (guanta, guatusa, some brids and probably a few monkeys) and collecting seeds, which the family uses for handicrafts and home medicinal remedies.

The jungle "before", as primary rainforest.

But Alirio’s father was recently widowed, so now the whole farm is up for sale, and it remains to be seen if the virgin forest we hiked through will stay that way. Sadly, it appears that this is how most of the primary rainforest in the Tena area has disappeared, not through massive clearing by state and multinational companies to grow corn and soya, as has happened in Brazil, for example, but chunk by small chunk, so gradual that it's difficult to realize that it's happening.

The jungle "after", in preparation for crops or pasture.

The "Monkey Walk" is so named because Alirio has supposedly seen monkeys on occasion, though when we asked him if he thought we'd see any this time, he said, "What, with all this noise?" as the kids ran crashing through the foliage and our voices carried over their commotion. "Walk" is also a misnomer, since for those of us raised in cities such a tame verb conjures strolls on pavement or maybe in a groomed public park. If you live in the jungle, however, walking is simply what you do when you are upright in motion and not running.

After four hours, we arrived back at the house to eat lunch with the family and recuperate.

I only look dead.

At the lunch table.

That afternoon, eight hours after we first crossed the river, we cleaned up to the best of our ability and headed back to "the city."

The "after" canoe.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Eye of the Beholder

Coming back from a recent trip to the States, I read a Newsweek article on beauty-obsessed “tweens.” First of all, I didn’t even know we were calling them “tweens.” (These are the people formerly known as children, right?) I had happened to see a commercial for the reality TV show that the article referred to (on TLC cable network, if you’re interested) and I thought it was a spoof.

Disclaimer before I go further: I was actually in a beauty pageant when I was 11, but the Our Little Miss pageant organizers had the marketing savvy to call it a “talent pageant,” which was more accurate anyway. Most of us pre-teens applied our make-up ourselves, and you can
guess the results.

It happens that Ecuadorians are crazy about beauty pageants, though I think the minimum age is 16. Every event imaginable features a reina (queen) competition. You have the Queen of the Annual Tena festivals, the Queen of Carnaval, Queen of Tena’s World Eco-Toursim Fair (the "world" part is a work in progress), and so on. It’s to the point where I’ve actually toyed with the idea of having a Queen of the Dry Toilet festival to promote ecological sanitation. The marketing on that one might need a bit more work. . .

Finalists at a Catholic high school's reina competition

The beauty pageants here are similar to those in the U.S. The ones for Kichwa queens are most interesting because the contestants usually have to dance in traditional Kichwa dress or sing Kichwa songs to promote their culture. However, the cash prizes and silk sashes are decidedly occidental.

One big difference between American and Ecuadorian beauty pageants, though, is the definition of beauty. Lighter skin is almost always considered more beautiful, even by people with darker skin, which can be limiting and self-effacing to say the least. But in terms of body shape, Ecuadorians have a much greater appreciation for curves and meat on the bones. News anchors on TV actually resemble real people, and some actors on the most popular prime-time soap operas would be considered at least chunky by American standards. I see some evidence that this might be changing, but not drastically, and certainly being called gorda (fat) is still a compliment or term of endearment.

You see what a difference it makes when society at large accepts a range of normal to voluptuous body shapes for women. I realized how self-conscious I was about my body when I came here and discovered I could relax about it. For all the talk in the U.S. about the need to appreciate one’s own body, I have a new appreciation for how difficult that is to do when the message from mainstream media and culture is exactly the opposite, and coming from the gloss-covered lips of “tweens” no less.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Oil and Water

My friend Juan, who has a college degree and used to run a tourism project in the Kichwa community where he grew up, gave me two reasons that he is now working for Ivanhoe, a Canadian oil company contracted by the Ecuadorian government to drill in the most populous region of the province, where he and I both live: People in the cities benefit from tourism dollars, but not the communities. And heavy crude is breaking through the surface, so it’s a health hazard to leave it there.

There are counter arguments to Juan’s statements, but I can't deny his concerns about work. I also know, as does he, the atrocious record that some oil companies have in the northern Amazon. Chevron-Texaco’s unfettered oil drilling dumped 30 times more crude in the rivers than was spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster, and cancer is rampant in that area.

Everyone here knows what happened in the north, and some trust that the government will implement sufficient controls to prevent widespread environmental destruction. Others see that the government has already broken its own laws, including allegations of “serious irregularities” in the Ivanhoe deal. And then there is the fact that Ivanhoe’s technology for converting heavy crude (all that exists here) into light crude has been tested only over the last few years and on a small scale in Bakersfield, CA. Living on a tributary of the Amazon River and in one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world, we are a long way from Bakersfield.

It was one thing to read about these conflicts from my former apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now I can watch them unfold right outside my door. Ivanhoe thinks it will be able to extract more than 100,000 barrels a day about 2 miles from where I live in Tena.

The government finance directors think the oil revenue will pay for health and education programs. Some locals think Ivanhoe will shower them with jobs or money for infrastructure. Politicians think they’ll earn extra cash and votes. I think it could be a disaster, and not just environmentally. Coca and Lago Agrio, in the heart of the Chevron-Texaco mess, are notoriously dangerous, drug-plagued cities. Tena is so safe that I don’t even bother to lock my door sometimes.

But rather than give in to fear, I’m hoping that the delicious incompetence of the Ecuadorian government, combined with falling oil prices, will buy a little time. Meanwhile, some friends of mine and I have started Amazon Partnerships Foundation to help communities find practical ways to use and renew natural resources to meet their basic needs so that jobs promised by oil companies are not their only option.

We’ll provide grants and project management training to communities that want to design and implement their own projects to protect the environment or promote the conservation values of traditional Kichwa culture. One grant could supply a women’s group with training to market their hand-made jewelry and baskets, earning them income to buy food and school supplies for their kids. Another grant could help a community start a sustainable forestry project so they could reforest part of their land for conservation and have a reliable source of income through lumber sales.

For everyone, it's an experiment in coping during difficult times, and none of us has any guarantee of an outcome that will ensure happiness and well-being. But one thing this place teaches us foreigners is that small victories matter. And when I look out at the lush foothills and rivers and imagine what could disappear . . . whatever I might see ten years from now, I want to know that at least I didn't shy away from the battle.

Thanks to Sadie Funk for the river photo.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Old Man Burns Again

On December 31, 2007 I was a mere observer of the “Año Viejo” tradition, the one in which Ecuadorians of all races and classes stuff old clothes with newspaper, scrap wood, and whatever other combustible material they can find to make an “old man,” who represents the year about to end. Sometimes they add a papier-maché mask—of a devil, clown, cartoon character, politician, friend or family member—and a cigar or other accessory and light the whole thing on fire at midnight. You purge what you didn’t like about your own or others’ behavior in the previous twelve months, but you can also celebrate the good as well. In true Ecuadorian fashion, the “old man” can be whatever you want him to be. No pasa nada.

I decided that this year (last year) it was my turn to partake. Here you can see the sad but charming old man my friend Kelly and I made. We didn’t set out to make a Sponge Bob replica, but we’re beginners and I was fresh out of flour-and-water paste.

Kelly composing last thoughts for 2008.

Another part of the tradition is that you can stick notes on your guy. Again, these can be congratulatory or critical, but I opted for the latter. I’m not evolved enough to be able to burn what brings me joy. You can see that Kelly and I had a few things we wanted to bid adieu.

We burned our Sponge Bob and walked through the streets set ablaze as if Colombia had dropped a bunch of marionette bombs. New Year’s Eve here happens in the neighborhoods, and each usually has at least one bonfire into which everyone’s old man gets flung. Some people also write and post testimonies, either things they promise to do (or stop doing) or satirical send-ups of neighbors for everyone to see. On our way to the big bonfire in the central park, we passed one testimony of a man who promised not to complain to his wife so much when he comes home drunk in 2009.

It’s hard to decide which part of this tradition I like the most: making the doll, writing up my goodbyes-good riddances, lighting the thing on fire, or attempting to roast marshmallows over the glowing ruins. All I can say is that I felt liberated and optimistic watching our creation be reduced to ash. The people I allowed to upset me, my bad habits, the big global problems that are beyond my power to change were all transformed to the good in that fifteen-minute fire, simply through the recognition that it is never too late to begin anew.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Encounter with the President

No, not that President.

It was an overcast Sunday, and I was hanging out with my friend Andrea, who lives in an upscale Quito neighborhood. As someone raised in U.S. suburbs, I found it all a little too familiar: paved sidewalks and tree-lined medians surrounding modern apartment buildings and some large houses, electronic gates around the housing developments, and inside everything finished and manufactured. I saw no naked light bulbs screwed into ceiling sockets, no slap-dash paint jobs, and no window cracks sealed with putty.

We stood in line at the ice cream shop at an outdoor mall near her apartment, minding our own business, when the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, strolled in with his family and took his place two people behind us. Completely star-struck as soon as I laid eyes on him, I fixed my gaze on the chocolate-covered waffle cones for fear of gawking should I turn my head in his direction. Andrea casually mentioned that she had taken a class with the former professor of economics. Incredibly, he recognized her. More incredibly, he struck up a short, polite conversation with her. He was distracted, so I took the opportunity to gawk uninhibited.

After finishing our ice cream a mere two tables away from el Mandatario, who was not sitting in a bullet-proof chamber or surrounded by heavily armed men, Andrea approached him. She thanked him for inspiring her to pursue her current job with a leading environmental firm that analyzes financing possibilities for the emerging carbon market. It just so happened that the President’s team was reviewing a proposal for protecting one of Ecuador’s major jungle reserves as part of a global cap-and-trade scheme; he wondered, could her firm take a look and give his team suggestions? She handed him her business card.

No, I’m not making this up.

I watched the President shake hands and have his picture taken with the customers and store employees and kiss babies, all under the watchful eye of five or six policeman who leaned against their police cars. Of course a scene like this is more possible in a country of 12 million people, roughly eight times the number that will see Barack Obama be inaugurated in Washington D.C. in January. And there is certainly a significant downside to all of this familiarity. The Ecuadorian government is famous for its nepotism—I have a whole blog’s worth of stories about my dealings with inept bureaucrats who got their jobs because they are the son of the governor’s best friend’s daughter’s cousin.

On the other hand, when six degrees of separation are reduced to two degrees, does that open the door to share new good ideas, not simply get you a fat government paycheck? After all, Rafael Correa was right there in the ice cream store talking to my friend about environmental policy. Would a casual conversation about dry ecological toilets over a bowl of mango sherbet be that far-fetched?

I’ll keep you posted.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Uncertainty's Dance

My friend Natalia and I were talking recently about the world economic crisis, how it might impact Ecuadorians like her, and how it might impact foreigners like me with work-based visas from U.S. non-profit organizations that are already starting to brace themselves. “For us, we live with uncertainty everyday, so we’re used to it. But for you guys,” she sympathized, “it must be really hard.”

Just to put it in perspective, in the last 18 months, the price of 40 kilos of chicken feed—corn—in Ecuador has gone from $10.50 to $24, an increase that is part of the story of the global food shortage. A lot of chicken farmers here feel the squeeze, as do corn growers in the region where I live, who have not gotten significantly more for their crops. Prices for basics like rice, sugar, and eggs, have shot up 30% according to government statistics, a difficult burden for families who make on average about $250-$400 per month. And if you make $70, as thousands of families in the Amazon do, it’s just about insurmountable.

From what I’ve read and heard, food prices are a perennial campaign issue in this country with its small middle class, weak educational system, and few large industries, though the government has been subsidizing staples for the last several months. As with many other issues, the uncertainty of whether the average family will put enough food on the table, (I mean food like a plate of rice and some plaintains, forget about vegetables or dairy or protein) is one people learn to live with. When my friends here who read about the chaos in the U.S. and world stock markets ask me if it’s really as bad as it sounds, the expression on their faces falls somewhere between stunned and vaguely concerned, whereas I know my face shows something more akin to dread. But I think that’s because I have not yet dropped that particularly seductive American viewpoint that we have total control over our destiny.

So what else to do but learn how to dance with uncertainty, a process I started before I left the U.S. and one that perhaps subconsciously drew me to this place that could make one a master at it.

A couple of things I've been doing to improve my dancing skills . . .

1. Take a cheap vacation to a mini-utopia.

This is Salinas, a small town in Guaranda province that over the last 30 years transformed itself from a hamlet of straw and mud huts to a town of more than 20 locally run cooperatives that make everything from cheese and chocolates to essential oils.

People don’t live high on the hog here, and the system is far from perfect, but unlike many places in Ecuador, most people have jobs and the young people come back to live after they finish their education. My short trip to this center of micro-economy helped me forget nettlesome macro-economic problems.

2. Watch the sunset. Something that is both predictable and beautiful always brings me a sense of calm. And attention is all I have to pay.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Picnic on the Rio Napo

When some Kichwa friends of mine invited my American friends Jason and Mary and me on a picnic, I knew enough not to expect a grassy lawn with a wooden picnic table and a Weber barbecue. But I wasn’t expecting that I should have worn my rubber, knee-high wading boots. I should have known better.

We started off at Juan and Irene’s house, packed up the peeled oranges, papaya, and corn cobs from their farm, the old pots, knives, plastic cups and carving knives from their kitchen, plus the raw chicken, cheese, and chocolate chip cookies that Jason, Mary and I had brought. Then we crossed the paved road and headed down a steep slippery bank, where we had to proceed human-chain style to keep from pitching over the side. As we scaled down a rickety ladder that someone had built on the trail, I was wondering if there wasn’t an easier way to get to the river.

It turns out that we were going to Juan’s mother’s field to harvest some yuca that we’d be boiling over an open fire. With the tubers in our bag, we trekked another 20 minutes or so, fording a couple of slippery-bottomed streams, to arrive at a rocky bank on the Rio Napo.

Mary watches as Juan sets up the fire pit.

We set up camp, complete with palm-frond sun shelter, improvised fire pit, and delicious
cheese-stuffed roasted bananas (the less sweet kind, called “maduros”).

Peeling yuca in the shade of our natural umbrella.

Irene tending the maduros and chicken strips on our barbecue.

We feasted and some people swam (I waded) while Juan went fishing in the traditional Kichwa style with a hand-made net of thin palm fibers. I watched him throwing the net and diving in after it into the wide, fast Rio Napo.

Something about the river always makes me reflective, and I was thinking about how striking it was to watch someone with a college education and a computer in his house fish in the same way his great-great-grandparents did. I can’t think of anything I do that my great-grandparents did. Except travel, I suppose.

Packing up in the late afternoon, we took a shorter path back. Our Kichwa friends led all of us white people by the hand so we wouldn’t slip crossing the river. You learn to swallow your pride in situations like this. Groggy from the sun, I was glad to arrive and Juan and Irene’s house, where we drank chicha and ate the chocolate chip cookies, a novelty to our friends. As I heard a familiar distant roaring engine, I realized that I've adapted more to this environment than it might have seemed when the day started: I could distinguish from all of the other car noises the sound of the bus back to Tena.

Thanks to Jason Kaminsky for the great photos.

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