Microbes are blowing my mind. Well, no: I can accept how active, ubiquitous, and adaptable they are. I get that. Okay. To my rational, scientific mind they make perfect sense. Give them the right temperature, moisture, and material, and they'll eat and reproduce like mad until their poop outweighs their food. Even then, they'll continue, calling in their cousins to work on the stuff left over. To my human parts, though-- my eyes, ears, and hands, which can never perceive the billions of microorganisms engulfing and supporting me every second-- microbes make magic.Read More
Today is my last day in Ecuador. ...Wait, ¿¿¿Qué??? How did that happen?! While I have been soaking up sun and wandering markets and letting español plant itself surely in my brain, four and a half months passed. Right under my nose. Like my constant ache for home and simultaneous love for this country could continue forever, side by side confounding and delighting me. I want to cry when I think of how joyous it will be to reunite with my family and friends, and I want to cry when I think of how much I will miss the places and people I´ve known here. I already miss many of them, more than I imagined was possible. I will miss being able to get on or off an interprovincial bus at any point along the highway (forget bus stations!), and the whirl of raucous music bumping in time with the curves and jolts in the journey. I will miss the steep scent of eucalyptus that cuts through the Panamerican highway smog and inundates me, welcoming me back to the Sierra. The rows of roasting chickens in windows along every street, and the way they stealthily pique my appetite even when out of sight. The sight of indigenous women in ponchos and felt hats, colorful and daring amidst the hubbub of modern Quito. A warm sea. One-dollar golden coins jingling in my pockets. Machetes and banana trees and being told I´m linda by random passerby.
I will miss making fleeting decisions and acting them without needing to consult anyone. What I look forward to, though, is having people I love and trust to consult, when needed. I look forward to reliable hot showers and free, clean public bathrooms. To not worrying about only having $20 bills that no one can break. To exercising my precise usage of the English language, and to fresh greens and salads at my disposal. I look forward to having a cell phone and a computer, and to spinning my gorgeous nieces until we´re dizzy and giggling. I can´t wait to show you more photographs and try to express all that I´ve been unable to in writing. It will be good. It will be, and has been, all very good.
All this time to myself has given me an opportunity to brainstorm-- probably far too much-- about what to Do With My Life. The world works in myriad, mysterious, marvelous ways, and I can´t say that I have a much firmer idea about how to continue than when I arrived here. I might still need to study more (in Academia) to satisfy my tenacious search for understanding. I will certainly be practicing more agriculture and participating in local food movements-- what I see as solutions to un montón de problemas that we face. No matter what, the fact that I often catch myself thinking in Spanish will serve some good. De ley voy a seguir con todo que me gusta, y de ley seguir encontrando lo bueno más y más cada año.
I named this blog from a song I wrote late last year: ¨I´m the shape of milk pouring, steady, steady...¨ Funny, now, that the shape of milk has shaped my many paths during my stay here in Ecuador. Fresh milk first flowed into my life at the FBU farm, every morning at sunrise, and made its place in my heart (and stomach) during my stay with Marco. It has made instant coffee delicious and ¨boring¨ queso fresco ever-distinct and tasty. What strikes me now is that it is dearly missing from my homeland. Even whole fat organic milk can´t compare with that glob of yellowish cream floating atop a pot of boiled milk from a nearby vaca.
Maybe I´ll end up raising cows and providing you all with the sweetness of that daily froth. In the meantime, as paisajes and avenidas fade to memory and my body adjusts to clean tap water and burritos, I´ll be saying a long, loving adios. Gracias.
Martes, 12.4.11 @ FBU 6:20-- First wakening, from the kitten that is now staying in the volunteer house. I want to name it Pluma since it´s so light and feathery, and it´s face reminds me of a bird sometimes. The German boys have given it a boy´s name, even though we already know it´s female. Its whiskers tickle my cheeks as it rouses for the day.
6:30-- My alarm finally goes off and I force myself not to fall back into my wild dreams. I´m signed up to collect milk this morning (and show the new volunteer, Felix, where to do it), so I can´t drift back. I throw off the four thick wool blankets and follow Pluma to the bathroom.
6:50-- After leaving the two liters of fresh, still-warm milk to boil with Felix in the kitchen, I set back out in my rubber boots to feed the chickens and collect any eggs they´ve left over the weekend. They are the same kind as our old chickens on Bell Avenue, and as I open the door to their run I´m bombarded by memories of leading Camus, Gloria, Rosey and Pollo around the back yard with a stalk of flowering broccoli. They stare and cluck as I measure out their daily corn ration, chasing me to the feeder past verdant tufts of grass. Something must be done to make them eat that grass. The yolks just aren´t orange enough... but they´ll do. Twenty eggs.
7:05-- I retreat to my room for 20 minutes of yoga. My mind switches back and forth between concentration ont eh stretches and everything there is to do on the farm. The volunteer coordinator and de facto huerta manager, Fred, is in Guatemala this week doing a training in microbusiness, and he basically put me in charge of the garden while he´s away. Yesterday I spent all morning flinging myself from bed to bed, feeling almost frantic about what needs doing. Much of it is already planted, but the thought of manually preparing all the spent beds-- hoe, deeply, in clay-mud, wheelbarrow compost and pumice, pitchfork it in, rake it out, shape the bed...-- makes my back ache even more. Ahhh, back to that stretch. Temporary relief.
7:30-- I emerge again for breakfast. Today, since we´re one egg short of a full cubeta to sell in the afternoon, I go for oatmeal. Mix water and milk, boil with oats, add salt, sugar, and cinnamon, and top with a couple of those famous ripe oritos. No coffee for now, though I might buy some when we go to Intag later this week to pick up warm-weather produce from an allied farmer. They have an association of organic farmers there, and they happen to produce the best quality café in the country.
7:50-- Philip, another young German who´s here at FBU for a whole year (the gap year is paid for by the government if they choose social service like this), finally enters the kitchen. I was about to go wake him up, since today is harvest day and, though I helped last week, he´s needed to direct the show.
8:00-- I go out to ¨piddle around¨ until the others are ready. I find one of the giant pigs with an hours-old litter of nine piglets, all dazzling and fluffy, stirring around her overfull teats. One is laying, bare and soggy, ont he other side of the concrete pen. It was stillborn, I learn later. The rest look healthy and already plump.
8:20-- We begin harvest. Felix, Kirsten (another new German, a bit older and here for just a few weeks), and I set out to collect chard. A sad crop, but we gather four bunches of ten leaves each, plus a pile of holey or old leaves for the cows. Kirsten gets pulled out by Esteban, who runs the tree nursery, to help move 5000 saplings. She wants to practice her Spanish anyway, right?
9:30-- As we harvest, I can´t help jumping back to GTF last year. The smell of lettuce butt as the ugly leaves fall to the ground. How many times did it take me to make a presentable bunch of chard? Delicate cauliflower leaves hugging the glistening head-- almost coy. And carrots: how I miss those power hoses on a muddy day.
10:00-- Felix, Philip, and I finish the harvest: 4 chard, 2 celery, 10 head lettuce and 6 romaine, 14 beautiful broccoli, 8 cauliflower ranging from golf ball to plate-sized, a few tomate de arbol, 4 nice fennel, several zucchini, and a pile of stout carrots. Last week we made about $15 selling to various restaurants and conscious individuals in Tabacundo and Cayambe. Compared to Corvallis prices, our customers are some lucky SOBS.
10:20-- I´m zig-zagging plastic string between two not-so-taut wires we´re just rigged for the sweet peas. Poor things were flopping all over the place. Despite the mud (and therefore kinda wiggly posts) and hand-tightened wire, I can already see the plants happier. Two weeks from now the supports will be smothered, I reckon.
10:30-- I sign out to make lunch. Collect 6 or 7 loose heads of broccoli, a couple romaine, some neglected beets, arugula, and the carrots left over from Saturday´s sales on the Panamericana. So much to do in the garden, but it feels good to walk away for now.
11:50-- I´m ladling quinoa-broccoli-onion soup into the blender as people trickle in from work. I want the soup to be cream of broccoli, so I do one more blender-full before carrying out the salad and boiled beets. The soup is a successful experiment, chunky and creamy with a nice grainy texture thanks to the quinoa. Lots of veggies for one meal, but I´m happy as a clam and relieved that everyone eats it without a fuss (... well, I´m the only one eating the beet greens...).
1:00-- After cleaning the kitchen, taking the compost to the pigs, and collecting three more eggs to fill the cubeta, I need to lie down for a minute. Nobody´s about to give me a hard time. And besides, Valentine (the fourth German, here for a year) ends up reading and sleeping all afternoon instead of going to sell with the others. It´s raining for the moment, though, so...
1:30-- I´m back in the garden, somehow getting myself to hoe up a little bed where I want to transplant chard and onion. After hauling compost and cascajo (the pumice), I´m only half disappointed to be forced under cover by the rain. I retreat to start a project that´s been calling me since I first got here and spilled a handful of cabbage seeds while trying to find the rosemary packet.
2:00-- The seed shed. It´s a mess. Filthy, like with rotting potatoes against one wall and a pile of semi-fresh cow shit right in the middle. (Why, cow, here?!) I get to work, piling and sorting what I can on the floor (boots, old milk jugs, animal medicines, bunched sheets...) before honing in on the seeds. Most are in a plastic storage bin, but some are lying out in packets or cans, and even in the bin there´s exactly zero sense of organization. After a half hour or so of sorting and deciphering hand-written labels, I´m standing in front of a shelf full of plastic cups: the Brassica, the lettuces, the onions, etc. At the bottom of the bin, I find a big bag of soy beans and couple disintegrating baggies of purple corn. And sunflower seeds! I´m excited.
4:00-- After a proper inventory with Felix and another six eggs collected from the henhouse, I sit down with a cup of German black tea and try to make sense-- for the second time in a week-- of what needs to get done in the huerta. Seeds we have, seeds we need, starts ready to transplant... and to top it all off, what phase of moon we´re in. Today´s the first quarter, so five days from now ill be perfect for seeding fruits, leaves, and bus crops. Roots and some leaves are best left for once the moon is waning; the gravity shift pulls all sap and water (and blood, apparently!) downward, so roots develop faster. Vice versa for fruits (sap and water pulled up by the waxing moon means greater production above ground)-- but leaves like lettuce and arugula are a draw since we´d like big leaves but no flowers. How much of a difference does this practice actually make? Lots, according to the old volunteer coordinator and most farmers here. I believe it, but for now I´ll worry more about getting anything to grow at all.
5:10-- I´m running down toward Picalqui, the nearest village, and somehow I´ve dodged the rain. It´s easy flying downhill, long as I don´t slip or trip over bumpy grass or cobblestone. Once I hit the valley floor and begin to climb, I remember that I´m at almost 10,000 feet. Huff. But hey, it´s easier by the day. To distract myself, I remember my mantra from running with Marco: ¨Fuerza fuerza no se para!¨ I wonder if I have a future in garden planning, and what adventures I´ll get up to with Maria in May.
7:00-- As we eat mashed potatoes and frittata prepared by Felix, he and Valentine try to teach me some German. They´re insisting that you can never write how someone speaks (like, ¨Gimme that¨ or ¨Nothin´to it!¨) in German. Blasphemy, they say. One day, perhaps I will understand. For now, my English has gotten more clear and proper so they understand me, and I can never quite figure out whether I think and dream in Spanish or not. Almenos un poco.
9:30-- After writing all this, I go out to brush my teeth and am pleasantly surprised and amused that the whole house is dark. We be tired.
It´s amazing how quickly my life can change, and how easy it is for me to sink into a new form of living. I am now living about 30 minutes south Puyo, just on the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazonía, with a man named Marco. He happens to be one of the few practicing shamans outside of the interior forest (where some tribes still live relatively traditional lives), and for the next three weeks I will be learning from him, working for him, and doing a good deal of time-passing on the beautiful property he care-takes. On Wednesday, after almost a full, lazy day of rain, we woke before sunrise to walk in the forest... After about a half-hour of walking through cattle ground (mostly tall maiz-like grass spotted with palms), as the sun´s light gradually flooded the valley, we reached the first river. ¿Tienes miedo de las alturas? Marco asked as we approached. Well, No, normalmente no... This crossing didn´t change that: just a log, rather slippery, a foot wide and only 5 or 6 meters across to the other side. I chose not to look away from the log as I stepped along, but in retrospect I´d guess the fall would have been about 12 feet. Not bad.
From this first river, we continued through tall grasses-- now more scarce among the forested pockets-- and Marco pulled a bunch of tiny coconuts, still a bit bitter, down from a tree for us to suck on. Further on we found a delicate menthol plant, roots pungent and refreshing, then a ¨crab´s claw¨, a type of thin red stalk with a rhubarb-like texture that subdues thirst. Soon we found a couple of plants used in the wedding ceremonies of his ancestral tribe, the Andoas of Peru: a long thread-like vine that they would wrap over the shoulders and around the torso and waist of the bride and groom, then tied around their joined wrists to signify their union. The ceremony then continued, rather bizarrely by Western standards, as such: the bride and groom were rubbed head to toe with an aphrodisiac plant whose leaves smell strongly of cloves and cinnamon, then lead to a bed of heart-shaped leaves on the ground. To complete the marriage, they would then make love, all riled up from the aphrodisiac, in the middle of a circle of elder witnesses of the tribe. After this, they would sit on a pile of ortigas (akin to stinging nettle) to awaken their energies and ensure a productive, fruitful life together.
I wish I could videotape every single conversation I´ve had with Marco. It is all that fascinating.
On with the selva. At the next river, Marco crossed with a rope swing but then accidentally let go of the rope... so, I proceeded to hack away at a nearby tree with his machete in order to fashion a pole to rescue the rope. Machete hacking is harder than it looks, and I don´t fully understand how he can clear so many branches and ferns as he walks along-- ching! ching!-- so nonchalantly. We ended up walking along opposite banks after I caught, threw, and re-lost the rope over the river. Boots off to avoid flooding my feet, steady does it through the current, and we arrived on the other bank. Finally, selva primaria. One of the only parcels this far west.
Almost immediately, Marco pointed out the sound of a jaguar off in the trees, alert to our smell, and he reminded me to stay close-- don´t stray too far back-- because jaguars always prey on the last person in line. This species was relatively small of rosey-tan in color like a puma (though we didn´t see it)-- the same kind that he once encountered at night, alone, stalking along the forest floor. It´d scampered off when Marco finally directed his flashlight in its eyes. He´s also run across a black panther, bigger and more aggressive, but it, too, snuck away rather than confront him. Soon after the jaguar´s soft call faded, we stopped to smell the spicy bark of a tree and were soon running downhill after what sounded like a monkey, about 50 meters away. After just a couple glimpses, Marco could tell it was only an ardilla, a type of squirrel. Still looked like a monkey to me!
Eventually, after many more stops to look at plants and tree bark and listen to bird calls, we arrived at the Quindi Pakcha: Waterfall Where the Hummingbirds Nest. All around were these bright red flowers, Labios de Mama Negra, which start as luscious lips and eventually turn into leaves, like a poinsettia. The waterfall itself is small but magnificent, and the area around it is steadfast and calm, with huge fern fronds hanging over its banks, giant trees loaded with epiphytes at every bend, mosses and river shrimp and giant iridescent blue butterflies flapping downstream. Like a dream, hidden yet more real than anything in ¨our¨ world: lemon tea, porches, reggaeton bumping from the cafe next door.
Without much delay, we stripped to our swimsuits, gingerly stepped out along a log overhanging the cascada, and whump! jumped into the bubbly mess below. Ah yes, before that, though, Marco asked if I´d been in any selva or river here before, and proceeded to rub a plant that grows all along its banks over my arms, head, and legs so that the river would accept me and keep me from harm. It worked. Swimming in that freezing water revived me like nothing had since the coast-- the water smelled different from any I´ve ever jumped in, almost musty but still clean and fresh.
After we swam a bit, we sat on a rock in the river while Marco recounted more of his history. It was at this waterfall, about 20 years ago, that his brother began to teach him and impart his shamanistic powers. Each morning they would rise from their nearby camp just before 5 am in order to beat the hummingbirds to the waterfall. The tiny colibrí bathed and drank at 5 am sharp every day, and the brothers came before them so that they could receive the full strength and power of the cascada. He grew up very near to this spot, before there were roads or power or people. His father died when he was just 4 years by falling from a roof he was fixing; he is suspected to have been negatively affected by a rival shaman, and Marco´s father actually foresaw his death under the influence of a powerful forest plant, maricahua, that shamans use to foretell the future, converse with plants, and solve mysteries. Marco grew up here with his mother and brothers, tending small plots of yucca, papachina, and maíz heavily supplemented with the forest´s abundance: foot-long fish in every river, snakes, monkeys and meat from all kinds of other mammals. Before the highway was built when he was 12, before people flooded the region to hunt and log and mine resources, before his family had the opportunities to watch TV, buy new conveniences, and listen to modern music, Marco and his family hunted with blow guns, tips laced with a precious mix of three rare jungle plants. Their shirts and dresses lasted years out of necessity-- they took the best care of them because they only had one. When the highway first came, they were elated to have better contact with the outside world; it was a welcome treat and change from such a rustic life. By the time Marco began school at 16 years old, he had begun to notice that the animals were scarcer--his only clue of a disappearing forest and way of life. Still, after stopping high school in his early twenties, he didn´t fully realize the gravity of change in his homeland, and he proceeded to marry, have kids, and work in town. When his brother, who´d learned the shamanic ways from their father before his death, began to pass on that wisdom-- entering the selva and cultivating a vast knowledge of all the plants and animals there-- Marco finally fully realized the irreversible changes that the highway has brought. Now, organizations and citizens´groups are sometimes plagued by corruption and misguided decision-making in the face of intense pressure from extractive industries. From where I stand, people like Marco-- truly dedicated and determined to retain their dwindling oral knowledge and conserve what forest remains--are the brightest hope for this forest in a world gone mad for money and ¨progress.¨
There is so much more to share, and I hope to upload photos and descriptions of more of the curative plants that I´m getting to know. For now, here´s a short list of some of the things Marco and this forest could help you with:
Blood-coagulant to slow snake venom (bark), labor-inducer and pain relief (large pink flowers), abortions (leaves with blood-red spots), varicose veins (leaves with purple undersides), cancer prevention (small striped leaves), wart removal and circulation enhancer (tree with blood-red sap), stress reduction (long leaves), and removal of mal aire in a bath of several leaves.
I would love to hear more comments and questions, as I have way too much to share and could use some starting points!
At five thirty in the morning, I can´t see the dirt on my pants as I pull them on, slowly. I can´t tell how dark my eyes are, or how rustled my hair is after a night under thick wool blankets. I hear a pig squeal, dogs bark, and the sky tentatively gives way to the rising sun. I step gingerly into my rubber boots as the house dogs launch themselves up to my knees, then make my way to the stable, careful to duck under clothes lines and cedar limbs. Hilario, one of the two foremen who live on the farm with their families (eleven children running wild every afternoon), meets me at the barn with his nine-year-old son, Manolo. On Thursday, he wears a neon pink scarf above his gray sweater to stave off the early chill. Very stylish. Manolo and I trod up to the upper field where the cows are still laying in the dawn. We circle round each of them, hissing and clapping to rouse their massive bodies until every one but Abuela has risen. One by one, clunky and stubborn, they make their way down to the low paddock as we whack their bony hips and jump around to keep them from backtracking. There are about twelve cows in all, but we only let four pass through the barbed wire gate to the milking shed. It collapses as I pull the first pole out of the ground, hand-cut branches falling amid the curly wire. Abuela and Fortuna trot ahead of the other two milkers. They each know where to go and calmly prod their necks through the grates in the feeding line, eager to munch on a loose stack of fresh alfalfa and apathetic toward their captivity once they begin chewing.
Manolo throws damp, filthy nylon cord around the first cow´s hind feet and tail, pulling it tight so that she can´t kick us as we crouch at her utter. We splash her teats with water, wipe them with an equally filthy rag, and settle into our haunches on either side of her bulging, pregnant waist. The first splashes of milk piddle out from my side as Manolo sends loud jets into the balde. The first few times I milked were like that the whole time, with Manolo finding cups more milk on my side after I had tired. This morning, though, after a few weak splashes, I begin to find a rhythm. I knew to hold the teat with my fingers at its center rather than wrapped fully round, and I could feel the steady downward flow of milk under my grasp. Hilario and Manolo have been doing this twice every day for two years, and their hands move fluidly, fingers waving the milk down the teat and into a strong, thick jet that bounces and froths in the bucket below. My technique is still amateur, but this dawn I finally feel what they do: the insistent, regenerative pulse of milk under my fingers.
I quickly pull the bucket aside as the cow stomps her back feet and wails, inevitably freeing herself from the tether. She´s looking back at me with wide black eyes. Does this hurt her? Is it anything like the sucking of her calf? Manolo ties her legs again and kneels to let out the last of the milk. His hands tug almost violently over the last spurting milk, and I inhale the scent of cream and shit wafting through the shed. Hilario flips the light off for the expanding daylight. Eight liters from the first. We´ll get twenty-six altogether this morning, giving a liter or two to each family and the volunteers and selling the rest at thirty-five cents a liter.
I stand, clenching and unclenching my sore fists, looking forward to the moment when I stir instant coffee granules into this milk, boiling and frothy, and watch a spoonful of sugar dissolve into its creamy, shit-laced sabor.