This winter and early spring, I spent nine weeks in Ecuador, learning Spanish and doing volunteer work at an organic agriforestry project. Here are some of my impressions of my experience:
Week one: It took me much of the week to adjust to the altitude in Quito (9895 feet above sea level). I also became acquainted with my house parents Alicia and Galo and my teacher Consuelo at the Banana Spanish School (where we did indeed eat a lot of bananas). I got an introduction to Ecuadorian culture when Consuelo took me to a colorful, lively market, filled with all sorts of fruits, vegetables, baked goods, flowers, and other assorted products. There are no English translations for the names of any of the fruits that I purchased. I also got to explore the countryside when Alicia took me out of the city to visit her father, who lives with several of his sons and their families on a small farm, where they grow vegetables and fruits. The fruit trees include lemon, orange, and avocado. I enjoyed climbing a tree to pick some of those delicious avocados. It was truly a culinary adventure.
Week two: After a long week of mind-bending language exercises, I went back with Alicia to visit her father. I drew in my sketchbook and picked avocados and lemons. Alicia made lunch, which consisted of soup and chicken and rice and vegetables. There was popcorn to go into the soup, instead of the crackers that I am accustomed to adding. I truly enjoyed all of my meals but learned, after a bout of indigestion, that I have to be a little more careful when on my culinary adventures.
Week three: Because Consuelo needed to spend more time with her children, I had a change in teachers. I enjoyed getting acquainted with Carlita. We took walks through Quito, and I learned grammar and vocabulary while dodging cars (street crossing in Quito is exciting, to say the least, because there seems to be no concept of pedestrians having the right of way). During the week, I also celebrated Valentine’s Day with my family and with the language school. This holiday is a big deal in Ecuador. It is called “El Dia de la amistad y amor” (day of friendship and love). Quito has the title “la ciudad de los geranios” (city of geraniums). Much of the city was decorated with geraniums on Valentine´s Day. Alicia and her husband Galo went out for a romantic evening. Irene (a doctor who lives with the family) and I took Ody (the family’s French poodle) out for a walk, much to his great glee. Many people and dogs were outside, celebrating the day (it seems that nearly everyone in Ecuador has a dog!). Later, we saw a band marching out of the nearby church, followed by people dancing to the lively rhythms.
Week four: On Tuesday, Carlita and I went to “La Mitad del Mundo” (literally translated, that’s “the middle of the world”). We started with a walk through Quito. I had fun exploring architecture and trees and gardens. After a bus ride, which featured people boarding the bus to sell all sorts of stuff, including chocolates, ice cream, DVDs (all pirated), and loads of other stuff, we arrived at our destination. I was offered a tour with either a Spanish- or an English-speaking guide. I chose the Spanish-speaking guide so that I would get more practice with my listening comprehension. I saw all sorts of interesting things relating to life in the Amazon rain forest, including a giant tarantula, an enormous snake, and a hammock that’s large enough to accommodate an entire family. As an added bonus, I was able to stand directly on the equator, with one foot in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere!
Week five: This was my first week at Bosque de Paz, an organic agriforestry project in the northern part of Ecuador, about 30 miles from the border with Colombia. The family that owns the land consists of Piet Sabbe, originally from Belgium, his wife Olda Peralta, from Las Esmeraldas, on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, and their two daughters, Naomi and Maikin. There were five volunteers: Kevin and Aurelie from La Reunion (near Madagascar), Rolf and Natascha from Germany, and yours truly from… Gringolandia!!! (That’s the name that Mexican painter Frida Kahlo gave to the United States!) I learned that there are 20 different species of bamboo grown at Bosque de Paz. In addition, there are the banana, coconut, and grapefruit trees and groves of lemon trees and papaya and yucca. If you´re lucky, as I was when I was planting turnips one day, sweet fruit will fall from a tree and split open at your feet and you can have a taste test. If you’re even luckier, you’ll be invited, as I was late one afternoon, to do “social work”: Piet and his children and the volunteers sat at the table on the porch and shelled cocoa beans. That evening, we enjoyed a delectable chocolate spread on our bread! Another day, when I was super lucky, we drank coconut milk. There is no word in any language that can adequately describe how luscious that was!
Weeks six and seven: I interviewed Piet, who told me his story. A mechanical engineer, he came to Ecuador in the early 1990s to work on an engineering project. He got married and never left Ecuador! He also became interested in the concept of habitat restoration. With his savings, he purchased a small parcel of land in northern Ecuador in 1995. That is how Bosque de Paz (“Peace Forest”) got its start. When Piet and Olda took possession of the property, they observed that the lower part of the main valley had been deforested and replaced by pastureland for cattle to graze. Because the trees, which act as sponges for the precipitation during the rainy season, were gone, the water washed the top soil from the valleys and the steep slopes. What was left was arid grassland in the valleys and just the remnants of forest on the slopes. In the past, the entire area was a humid cloud forest, filled with many species of plants, birds, monkeys, and other animals. Piet’s first step to restoring the land was to plant bamboo, which grows rapidly and is a good building material. He also planted vetiver grass, which is stiff and can be used to prevent runoff. After more than 15 years, Piet describes the land as a “young forest.” Piet walks to the forest remnants and collects plants and seedlings in hopes of restoring the forest to its original condition.
Week eight: I spent a few days at Pikyu Pamba, a Quichua community near Ibarra. I was there for a ceremony, which occurred on Monday, March 21st (the vernal equinox). The ceremony was begun with the lighting of the fire, which is considered to be the male spirit.
Next, a deep hole was dug in the earth. Our Quichua hosts described the earth as our mother, the Pacha Mama. Then food, including potatoes, yams, yucca, beans, chicken, pork, corn, plantains, and pineapples, was prepared. All of this was placed in the hole, along with rocks that had been heated in the fire. Once all of the food was in the ground, hot water was poured over the food. Immediately, steam rose from the hole, which was then covered by a thick cloth and by dirt. A group of musicians began playing their instruments. We took off our shoes and socks, and we danced joyfully to the lively, energetic music. We let our feet sink into the soft, gentle earth, and it felt good. Later, volcanic ash was spread over the stomped-on, squashed earth.
Half an hour later, the dirt and ash was lifted and carefully removed. The food, which had been steamed under the ground, was removed and put into baskets, which were carried into a large building.
Before we could begin to eat, a plate of food was prepared and was taken outside for Pacha Mama. She is our mother so she is honored by being fed first. Then we all enjoyed a meal, which was a celebration of love for our beautiful earth.
Week Nine: During my last week in Ecuador, I reflected on my time there. Carlita and I also managed to visit “el centro historico” (the historic center) and the Botanical Gardens (los jardines botánicos).
In the Botanical Gardens, I saw a display of orchids. They are determined plants that will grow just about anywhere. They will grow on rocks and on the tops of tall trees, as well as from the ground. They come in many colors and sizes. I saw examples of plants from a variety of ecosystems in Ecuador, from rain forest to sierra. Unfortunately, as explained in at the Botanical Gardens, the beautiful ecosystems are endangered by poorly planned, out of control development.
And a final thought of my experience: Despite all of the ecological problems that I observed in Ecuador, many of which we have experienced here in the United States (the destruction of much of the great northeastern forests, among others), I truly enjoyed my time in Ecuador. Shortly before I left, I wrote on Facebook and in a group email: “I never imagined that I would become so attached to people here in Ecuador. And I never imagined, when I first arrived, that I would come to love Ecuador as much as I do right now.”