Friday as I was writing my last post I was simultaneously preparing last-minute details for a meeting between Odd Hannsen, Mirella, and Jennyfer (the big bosses). Drew and I work as the go-betweens for the Foundation and the school, and just as with any social organization that is supported by Donors, there exists a difference between how the Foundation wants the school to be run and how it really is being run. We are pretty much balancing between the two forces, trying to help all we can at the school, but also trying to help brainstorm with both sides about how it can be improved.
We weren´t in the meeting but we over heard it. The Odd Hannsen Child Development Center is a brand new project. A brand new school in a neighborhood the Foundation Valle Interoceánico has never worked with before. There are many challenges that come with any new project, and it has been a learning process for everyone– needless to say the meeting was full of opinions.
After the meeting, we caught a ride with Mirella to the bus terminal in Quito. During the carride Mirella was quieter than we’d ever heard her, and while she usually talked our ears off about the center, she was just silent. Drew and I snuck a wide-eyed look at eachother and just tried to talk to her as much as possible. Mirella puts 100% of her time and effort into making the school a success and so far, we have been nothing but impressed by all the work that she does. The foundation just has specific expectations about the organization and timeline of the day, and aren’t shy about their wishes. Drew and I were worried that she would think we weren’t supporting her by talking to Jennyfer about the fact that there is some room for change at the school.(Thrilling types of change.. like the menu for example, making transitions from the classroom to lunch more controlled, amount of napping…) but we know changes are easier said than done. By the end of the carride, we had Mirella talking about her famous musicion Grandfather who has a line of Busses named after him, to talking about possible community feistas we can have in Machachí. We knew everything would be just fine.
ENOUGH ABOUT WORK.
We were thrilled to put our work worries aside, and we were even more excited for the weekend ahead. Friday morning we had read an obscure post on lonelyplanet.com about a cultural fiesta, “Tributo de las Aves” that is an ancient Incan tradition, and continued today by the Quitchua people at Los Lagones del Ozogoche (The Lagoons/Lakes of Ozogoche). Every year in September and October Plover birds that are flying south suddenly just plunge to thier deaths into the lakes. The story goes that the birds kill themselves because the storms over the lakes howl so ferociously they scare the birds to death, and there are some scientific theories about the changes in the atmosphere above the lakes that just wear them out. Nomatter the reason, the people see it as a blessing because they are rewarded with many meals. We both agreed that it would be an interesting sight to see, and if nothing else, we would get to eat some traditional food and learn more about the people. (Although the community supposedly eats the birds, I was not willing).
We got to the bus station by 7:00. By 7:45 we were on a bus to Riobamba–a town three hours south of Quito. The bus cost less than $4 for each of us, and we enjoyed watching “A Dark Knight” on the plasma TV that was built into the front of the bus. It was too dark to see the towns and mountains that we past but the stargazing was amazing.
We had booked a room at “Hotel Oasis” that had been highly reccomended on lonelyplanet.com, (a reliable source for all things travelling.) so when we got to Riobamaba at 11:00, we caught a cab straight there. The cab driver was really nice. So were his wife and teenage daughter who were sharing the front seat.
Hotel Oasis was discreet amongst the other residences on what looked like a quiet street. Except for the stained glass garage, that is. We rang the doorbell and after a minute a small voice came over the intercom. “Hola,” the voice said, and Drew replied “Soy Andres, tiene reservaciones” (I have resevations). Soon a teenage boy came to the door in a pair of pajamas that had some sort of cartoon pattern. His eyes were half open and his hair was everywhere. “Hola,” he said and we stepped into a quiant living room with a small desk, a couch to the left, and a small wall of keys. The only flickering light came from the TV that was on in the boy´s bedroom. He then guided us to another door that was bolted closed, and showed us out back. There we were surprised by an stone path that lead us through a quaint garden and through an arched doorway that led to a stone porch. Each room had stained glass doors. He opened the door to room #3 and we stepped into a watermelon colored room that was just big enough for a double bed and a small tv.
The first thing we did was check the shower to see if it had hot water, because we´ve been taking cold showers since the second day we got here (In my second post I bragged about having hot water. We haven´t had it since). We each took a long shower and stayed up for a while watching Liar Liar with Spanish subtitles.
The next morning was market day in Riobamba. Every Saturday, there are two markets in the town, and the streets are packed with farmers and businessmen selling everything from street-food to shoelaces on carts. The female farmers, or campesinas wear what look like fidora hats witht their hair in a low ponytail. Most also wrap their hair in “cintas” which are handmade ribbons that wrap around and around their ponytail until it they look more like rainbow sausages. They also wear long skirts and ponchos of a solid color. Most ponchos are hot pink or bright green, and made of alpaca fur.
We went to the fresh-food market first, and spent over an hour just walking up and down each aisle, past piles of chicken heads and feet, hurrying through the tunnels of skinned hogs, and standing in awe in front of the many sizes and colors of corn.
Two dozen fruit vendors were standing by their brightly-colored inventory, and as we drooled over one fruit stand, something would catch our eye from another. We encountered the almost half dozen banana options: Pequeños, Maduros, Verdes, Plátanos, Guineos,and witnessed the seemingly endless supply of our new favorite food: giant green mandarins.
The vegetables and herbs smelled wonderful too. Every five steps I would get a whiff of cilantro and my head would swivel around to another colorful booth. We were in awe of the prices as well: 25 oranges for a dollar, a pinapple for 60 cents.and I even bought 5 green peppers for a quarter.
Women passed us on the way to their stands with ginormous bundles of chamomile secured with blankets to thier backs. Others had not herbs strapped to them, but babies. I kept telling Drew to look at how indestructible the women seemed. I was particularly amazed that rarely anyone had a gray hair on thier head. Even the women who seemed seventy years old had only slight signs of graying.
Then there was our favorite part…the eating. There were more than twenty stations where women had set up carts and were serving all types of traditional meals. There was soup, rice, chicken dishes, mote (giant cooked corn kernals) and everything was paired with salsa de ají. We found our way to a stand with a regional dish… tortillas con queso. You may automatically think of a quesadilla when you hear about a cheesy tortilla but scratch that image from your brain. ( They do not traditionally eat those tortillas with their food here.It is a more like a thick wheat pancake with a cheesy filling. They are heaven. We enjoyed our tortillas with coffee at a community table that was in the eating area. A campesina sat next to us and told us how beautiful we were. Drew later told me that that was the moment he remembered that we stuck out like sore thumbs. I´ve sometimes forgotten throughout this trip that we are in such stark contrast to our surroundings too, but then we´ll walk past a group of highschoolers that immediately start to whisper and laugh, or I will look down as we are riding the bus and notice that Drew´s foot is twice the size of the man´s next to him.
We then made our way to the craft market. There were rows of stands with everything from traditional ponchos and hats to typical tourist knitted purses, scarves, and belts. Ok, I lied. We each bought a cinta for our ponytails.
We took a 2 hour busride to Alousí to catch the train down the “Nariz del Diablo.” We were excited to go on train ride that is known for it´s amazing views of the Andes. It would have cost $20 a piece but we had heard it was a must-see, so we sucked it up and decided to go for it. WHen we got to the train station, however, there was only one ticket left. Drew half-jokingly asked the guy if I could sit on his lap, but the answer was a definite “no.” We didn´t want our bus trip to be for nothing, so we walked around the city for half an hour ( It´s a small city), bought some mandarinas from a small market and found a bus back to Riobamba. The drive was beautiful, so we weren´t upset at all. We winded our way back over mountains and valleys and were happy to be back at Hotel Oasis.
We had read about a great dinner spot that served Mexican food: El Rey del Burrito. We´ve both been missing spice in our lives so were all over it. We got there and it was truly mexican themed. There were mexican cloths on all the tables and old mexican newspaper clippings on the walls. Drew didn´t even flinch when he ordered “El Rey del Burrito.” When the two-foot-long burrito came out on a plate that took two careful hands to carry, we just about lost it. Drew had been whining about how he can never fill his hunger, and I was pleasantly surprised that he had a sufficient challenge to show him up.
(Let me just say that I brought my camera on this trip. The first time I pulled it out to use it, however, I realized that I forgot to put my memory card back in after the last time I used it. My photo professor Father Doll would not be proud. At this moment I was thuroughly angry that I couldn´t take a picture of this event)
Drew rarely looses food challenges, and he came out on top of this one, too. And on the way home, he convinced me that we should stop and buy a candy bar.
Then Sunday was just the best day.
We took a cab across Riobamba to catch a bus to Lake Ozogoche. There were special busses for the festival, and we were the first ones there. We bought a roundtrip ticket from the festival volunteers and got on the bus. It smelled of pure gasoline and I thought it might break down before it even started moving. The bus was only half full, and there were a large group of Ecuadorian college students and a couple of others we speculated were foreigners.
The busride took nearly two hours and we watched in amazement as we passed through cloud forests that revealed small towns and communities with campesinos dressed almost identically with thier hats, ponchos, etc. The amount of poverty was striking: some people live in small hay lean-to´s and most have one room cement houses with tin roofs. The mountains are full of farm after farm, and even the most inclined areas are divided into patches of herb gardens, pastures, and turned-over soil. It is beautiful but most don´t have running water. Cows aren´t fenced in for the most part, and many are just tied up on the side of the road. There are also just packs and packs of dogs. In some places children and parents were working the land together, and again I was blown away by the women who were out herding sheep on foot.
We turned into Parque Nacional Sangay where the lakes are the bus continued to fill up with people from the community that were also headed to the festival. The stench of gasoline only grew worse as the bus made it´s way up hills so steep Drew and I were holding our breath to see if we´d make it around the next corner. But the views of lakes and rolling green mountains were breathtaking.
Finally we were there and we descended from the bus the only other gringo was waiting for us. “Sup guys, where are you from?” He greeted us. It turns out he was an Australian guy named Jake, the guy who wrote the post we had found online. He had been in Ecuador for 2 years, and ran an Eco-Tourism company- He said that he had never been to the festival but that he was really into trekking, and this park was a great place to do so. He introduced us to an Italian friend of his, and his two Ecuadorian business partners. They had also began talking to the group of Ecuadorian college students, so we all headed towards the festival together. We hiked our way around a muddy path until we heard instuments in the distance.
There were tents set up and people dressed in colorful traditional clothes looked like sprinkles on the mountainsides. Many people had arrived to the festival via horseback, and they were now offering horse rides to the few tourists. Some women were passing by pushing a cart of food and Drew offered to help push. They gratefully accepted and Drew had made new friends. They would later offer drew a free plate of food– it was potatoes with pigskin. We watched as the ceremony began with a speech and a small band playing music.
We filled up on empanadas de quinua and agua aeromatica (a hot tea-like drink), and fried beef with mote. I was beginning to feel guilty about eating so much food when suddenly Jake suggested that we go over to look at the lakes. Drew and I were ready to go, and we saw the lakes in the distance. People were flocking to the lakes on a flat path, and I assumed we would do the same.
I should have known that the group of Trekkers wouldn’t take the straight path. Instead, we were on our way when Jake and his friends veered straight up one of the nearby mountains. Drew followed suit, so I figured I would just go with it. We climbed up along the banks of a creek and soon we were high above the festival. Above us we saw a man cross the creek on his horse, so we climbed up to where he had crossed, and found a small path. It was so muddy and steep at a couple parts that one of our new friends, the Italian, had to litterally grab onto my backpack and push me as my feet just skated through the muddy incline and I grabbed for anything to grab onto. We made it to the top of the first mountain and I figured we would stop. We could see the lake and the festival below. But the guys kept on going.
For a minute I started an attempt at convining Drew that we should turn around. He was exhilerated though, and his smile was so wide that it convinced me to go on instead. Up from the backside of the mountain appeared a man on a horse. When he got close, we saw that both he and the horse seemed miniature. He approached us and started telling us that we were on his land. ” Beautiful, isn’t it?” He pointed in the dirrection from which he came, and there we saw more horses and cows. He reached his mud-caked hand out in my dirrection and I gladly shook it. Soon he invited me to ride his horse, and it wasn´t until he jumped off that I realized that I was almost a foot taller than him. I practically didn´t even need to use the stirrup to mount it. I rode the horse for a few paces, then Drew and I said goodbye to our new friend and kept hiking. (Not before he asked for a small gift in return for letting me ride his horse. We gave him a dollar.)
Before long we had made it to the final destination. We had caught up with the rest of the group perched on boulders over a steep mountain that dropped down to the lake. Two more lakes were visible too, and as we looked out at the lakes in amazement. It was literally in my top three most beautiful views ever, and I was proud of the hike we had done. When we realized the busses would leave in an hour and a half, the guys we were with had the idea to climb straight down the hill to the lake, so that we could take the flat path back. Before I could question the decision, the guys had packed thier things and headed down the hill. I shook my head at Drew but we went for it. One of the Ecuadorian girls felt as uncertain as I did, and soon we were friends as we were scooting on our butts down the steepest parts of the hill. The grass was up to our waists at parts and the soil was so wet that my ankles were almost rolling with every step. My knees were shaking as the only security I had was to use the grass as hand grips. The last descent was grueling, and seemed to take forever.
We finally reached horizontal ground and took in the last of the lake views as we headed back to the ceremony. We made it in time for some final songs and then continued to the bus.
We were walking alongside farmer after farmer and I as I looked around at the people and at the land, just felt absolutely content.
Although we have been working hard and learning a lot about preschooling, nutrition, spanish, and the bus system, our life here is simple.
As I was brushing my teeth last night something came over me. I started laughing uncontrollably. When I finally wrapped my head around why I was laughing, I tried to put it into words for Drew.
When I think about where I am in my life right now–newly married, living above a Medical Clinic on an Andes Mountain in Cumbayá, Ecuador, volunteering as a preschool teacher, hand-feeding soup to the mouths of crying children, designing and implementing a nutritious menu of ecuadorian food for those same kids to be healthy, starting to teach English to both literate and illiterate adults– I am just completely shocked at how I came to be here. I told Drew to think about what our lives were like a month ago and if he could even imagine how different our lives are already.
We haven’t had hot water, I don´t have a phone, We haven’t had TV or consistant internet, We don’t usually leave the house with more than five dollars on us, we usually don’t spend more than 2 dollars on any meal, I don’t wear makeup, or do my hair, I haven´t shaved my legs…