Cusco, Peru

     As mentioned in the previous post, the week spent at Yanapay was the first time during our trip that we felt like we had a job. Most likely, that’s because it was the first time that we had a boss micromanaging us. At Yanapay, we were not given the flexibility to run our program, but instead had to try to fit pieces of our curriculum into the rigid structure of the school (look at this cultish smock Luke had to wear, for example). We were successful in teaching some of the elements of our program and the kids were given the chance to perform at the end of the week, but inevitably we decided to stay with Yanapay for only 1 week instead of the 2 that we had originally signed up for.

     Yanapay is a social project run entirely by a 37 year old local Cusqueno by the name of Yuri. The main outreach program is the after-school program which is home to about 100 local children ages 5 to around 12. The other outreach program is the cultural center which works more with the teenagers, adults and most ideally the parents of the children in the school program. Both are entirely self sustained by a restaurant in the city center and a hostel, whose income is funneled directly back into the project. That way the schools don’t need to solicit donations from the volunteers or rely on overseas sponsorship. Being one of the only organizations in Cusco that allows volunteers to give their time for free naturally attracts a lot of participants that there were.

     During the first few hours of the day we were told to lead art class with the oldest batch of kids. We were teamed up with a man named Neil who was a middle aged manager for the Renewable Energy sector within the California government. He was there with his wife and 2 teenage children and had plans to hike the Incan Trail to Macchu Picchu the following week. Neil and his family had the best of intentions but had absolutely no preconceived notion of how they could contribute as volunteers and unfortunately none of them spoke any Spanish. We did our absolute best to accomodate Neil’s suggestions while sticking to our program; for example we would be in the middle of explaining a rhythmic concept when Neil’s eyes would light up and he’d say something like, “Hey!  Let’s draw squiggles!”  We would then draw squiggles for twenty minutes before resuming the rhythmic exercize.

     Most of the volunteers show up at Yanapay without much of an idea of what they are going to do there, so they donate their presence to whatever task needs to be done. Usually they kill time by passing out paper and crayons or sitting in a circle and playing telephone. For me and Luke it isn’t really satisfying to work with the kids in this manner because up to this point we’ve tried really hard to create a program that is both educational and entertaining.

     There was one other volunteer who also showed up with a pre- established program and we felt he had an interesting story. Joe from the UK has been living in Australia for the past few years as a sort of de facto music therapist. He works in a juvenile prison and is paid to run the prison wide radio station. He is a rapper and the kids get the opportunity to express themselves through hip-hop. Apparently the idea of being a rapper is extremely enticing to these young convicts and several of them have continued pursuing a rap career upon release. Sometimes Joe is contracted to do different sorts of awareness campaigns at the prison and some of them are really funny. For instance, one time he had to write a track about Hepatitis B. The teenagers were completely resistant at first until Joe had convinced them that Hep B is iike a gangsta with a body count. The rap ended up being a smash hit and they even made a music video about “Hep B, drivin down the blood stream, takin out the enemies.” The name of the song was “Heb B (You don’t wanna mess with me).” Joe had a similar program to ours in that he has been travelling around the world working with youth to use music as self-expression. Only instead of a banjo and mandolin he is equipped with portable speakers, a mic, laptop and mini piano.

     After art class, all of the kids gather close for an exercise that is called the circle of expression. Yuri runs the show and discusses with the kids whatever topic he deems relevant that day. During one of these sessions there was a new student of about 7 years old with a physically deformed hand. As an introduction, Yuri called the child to the center of the circle and in front of an audience of about 90 proceeded to ask him about his likes and dislikes. After about 5 minutes Yuri lifted the diminutive hand of the shy little boy and presented it everyone. The rest of the assembly was spent discussing the deformed hand and how even with 2 fingers the boy was still able to write (with his other hand). He then went around the room asking the children and volunteers to bring to light any sort of disability that they might have. It was an interesting way to deal with the situation, to be so open and raw about it. I was a little worried that the child was going to be humiliated but he actually seemed to handle it perfectly fine and who knows maybe Yuri’s method will help to prevent the other kids from teasing him about it.

     The remaining hour of the day is “family time.” At this point the kids are divided depending on their age group and are expected to learn about a specific topic and at the end of the week present about it in an artistic form. This week we were told to teach about Buddhism, an interesting topic for a community that is so devoutly Christian. Ultimately they are going to spend 3 weeks exploring Buddhism but during our week we were to teach only the story of Siddhartha Gautama. Luke and I were split into different groups and had to write and present two different songs. I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to writing latin pop/bluegrass crossover music, Luke and I are better as a duo but I’ll let the songs speak for themselves. We are uploading the videos tonight or tomorrow and will post them right here when they are finished.

     After finishing up at Yanapay we decided to visit the #1 tourist destination in South America, Machu Picchu. We hadn’t really done much site seeing in the Cusco area up until that point because of how expensive it is to do anything that is considered touristy. For example, in order to enter any of the museums or ruins you have to buy a pricey “tourist ticket” that gives you access to everywhere but expires in 10 days. You are not allowed to pay an independent entry fee at any of the sites. As a way to beat the system and save a whopping $20 we decided to take a bus and then hike 3 hours to Macchu Picchu rather than take the train. This was the most terrifying journey of Luke’s life. We travelled in a crowded van for 8 hours on a windy, single lane road that had been dynamite-blasted into the side of a mountain, of course with no guard rail. I get car sick even on the straightest of roads so I was doped up on knock-off Peruvian Dramamine and didn’t really see what was gong on. As Luke recounts, “we were speeding at 50 mph, skidding out to avoid huge rocks that had fallen into the middle of the road. The driver, who was trying to impress 2 Colombian girls in the front seat, was screaming “adventure!!” while the guy behind me was praying and everyone else was screaming.”

     We arrived to our destination alive, albeit shaken up. Machu Picchu itself is a spectacularly preserved and interesting site but the experience reminded us both of Disneyland. Long queues, single file lines through the buildings, loud American voices, pushing and shoving, etc.

The highlight of this trip was the unexpected, last minute dash up Mt. Machu Picchu, the peak overlooking the ruins. Most people, for some reason, get up at 4am to line up at Wayna Picchu, a much smaller peak that has maxes out it 500-person limit by 6am every day. We woke up much to late to do this, and so as a consolation decided to scramble up Machu Picchu. It turned out to be magnificent.

     Unfortunately for us, we had chosen to go on what has been described as the busiest weekend of the year. That Friday had been Inti Raymi, the outdoor theatrical reenactment of an Incan ritual. It occurs on the winter equinox each year and is viewed by thousands of people from all over the world. Our vantage point was so far up that the actors looked like tiny ants but we were given the chance to absorb the enormous scale of the production. 

     We are way behind on blog posts, so we will put on a full court press to catch up on the stories of the School for Blind Children, Casa Hogar Garriones (an orphanage), and where we are now, Camino de Solidaridad, which is by far the most interesting and poignant chapter of our journey to date.



Cusco, Peru
The Galapagos was an unforgettable experience.  It’s a sun soaked open air gallery of wonders where you stand toe to toe with the wierdest birds nature has to offer, and sea lions swim up to you and nibble at your flippers.
Here are just a few pictures, we can´t help ourselves.  Look how cute these animals are!
(How many lizards can you find in this picture?)
We returned in a state of bliss, having been in denial all week about the how stressful our return to the mainland would be.  Beginning a period of 50 consecutive hours of hassle, we prepared Mancha to fly to the states, a process which included the near-tragic misstep of giving her three times the amount of tranquilizers detailed in the Lan Airlines animal cargo requirments (she´s fine). We then sat in a food court for 8 hours, waiting for the night bus that would to carry us 900 miles south to Trujillo, Peru, a ride broken up by three transfers, a border crossing, and a police raid. When we finally arrived, we checked into the first hotel we saw and blacked out immediately.  
Our motive for coming to Trujillo was purely financial, as the cheapest flights to Cusco (our next anchor city) were from there. We had done no research on the area unrelated to air travel.  Luckily for us, Trujillo is built around the ruins of the Moche and Chimu civilizations, two cultures that preceeded the Incan empire, dating back to year zero.  Their temples have been uncovered but largely unexplored; to this day grave robbers and archaeologists race to uncover the sacrificial gold treasures hidden within.  
My favorite part of Trujillo was the Casinelli exhibit, a private collection of ancient regional artefacts located in the basement of a gas station. The Moche and Chimus are famous for their pottery, and 2000-year old pieces regularly surface intact in the rural outskirts of Trujillo. Luckily for us (unluckily for history) guests are allowed to pick up and play with the artefacts.  Here´s a video of Karen playing clay trumpet older than Jesus, uncovered near the Moche´s Sun Temple.  
Our flight to Cusco was spectacular – our little plane banked within spitting distance of the mountains that form the perimeter of the ancient Incan capital. Our first walk around the city was enchanting, Cusco is a multi-layered masterpiece.  The foundation of most buildings is original Incan mortarless masonry, so precise that you can´t fit a knife between the stones. Perched atop is the equally beautiful Spanish archetecture that flows through cobblestone streets to its seemingly endless town squares and cathedrals.
Unbeknownst to us at the time of our arrival, June is “Cusco Month”, their annual cultural expo of parades, traditional dance comptitions, orchestral recitals, folklore theater and independant film screenings.  Cusco is exploding with energy and pride in its history, and not just during this month.  Cusquenos work all year round to prepare for this celebration. In many ways, Cusco is a cultural paradise.  
 Since arriving, however, we have been affected by a very upsetting and frustrating phenomenon, that has been a huge wake-up call and has challenged us to sharpen and refine our organization’s identity.  We had our first inclinations that Cusco was different when we offered our program to an orphanage, and were told that there was no more space for volunteers, that they were at maximum capacity with 30. They offered to pencil us in for August, if we put a $100 deposit on our reservation.  We then visited an after-school care program for street kids, and there was a 1:1 volunteer to child ratio.  
       We walked to another orphanage, and enjoyed a very promising discussion about our program and how to implement it, and were getting down to scheduling when the director abruptly asked, “In addition to your time, what can you give us?” I asked her to repeat the question several times, because it was so unlike anything that we had heard before that my brain couldn´t process it.  Only when she started giving examples, “Money, clothes, food,” did I realize that she was not interested in our program at all, that she was merely tolerating our presence until she could hit us up for a material donation.  
         We finally connected with an organization named Aldea Yanapay, an after-care program that didn’t charge volunteers admission.  It is the manifestation of the very powerful, honorable vision of its director, Yuri.  It is both an after-care program and cultural center, their primary purposes are to lead both children and adults by example to diminish a cultural tendency of violence, disrespect, and low self-esteem.  Although it was saturated with volunteers as well, at least it was a respectable organization that was functioning on a high level.
         This was our first time working through another organization, and the first thing we learned is that Yanapay was highly structured.  There were mandatory volunteer meetings nearly every day, and we were informed that we needed to cancel our weekend plans to go to Macchu Pichu because we had to prepare our curriculum for the weekend.  Karen and I were split up into two “Family Groups”, and paired with two other volunteers each.  We were told that the theme of our program was to be the “Teaching of the history of Buddhism” and that teaching the principals was expressly forbidden because that would constitute going ahead of schedule.  We were also told to wear colored smocks that corresponded to our family group.  We started feeling cagey almost immediately.  
          However, our engagement with Yanapay was only a week long, and certainly had its merits.  Yuri is an incredibly passionate, involved director, and as a result his school achieves its aims.  The kids were very respectful, open and trusting.  The school was beautiful and succeeded in creating a safe, nurturing place.  We also learned a great deal from Yuri during his endless, daily monologues.  
       In our first meeting he detailed the source of the “volunteer problem”, most pronouced and exploited in Cusco but found all over the world.  According to Yuri, volunteer tourism is the fastest growing industry in South America.  35-50% of tourists to Peru volunteer to some capacity, in schools, orphanages, or shelters.  This, on one hand, is a wonderful thing.  There is a great need in Cusco for social work (behind closed doors there is endemic abuse, lack of education, and poverty). Also, it is honorable that so many people want to donate their time to interact with these people and try to help.  
          The bad news is that more than 80% of the available volunteer placement agencies are businesses, and many of them are for-profit N.G.O.s (did you know that those existed?  I didn´t.)  For this reason they cannot be regulated by the Peruvian government.  These organizations monopolize the internet, creating the impression that it is normal to pay a $1000/month placement fee at an orphanage, which many people gladly pay, assuming that the money goes into developing the charity that it serves.  Usually, the money does not go to the orphanage or shelter itself, but to the coordinator’s salary.
These organizations not only take manpower and would-be donations away from honorable charities, but also creates mistrust in the volunteer community. Most insidiously, it´s complete and total exploitation of underpriveledged children and communities. 
          Originally I was tempted to say that if these organizations put volunteers in at-risk communities at the end of the day, it’s helping society, regardless of what transpires financially beforehand.  However, I have since changed my mind completely, as we have now been prevented by these agencies from offering our program on multiple occasions due to their practice of keeping spaces available for paying customers.  It’s nauseating, really. This has challenged us to redefine our organization, to distinguish ourselves from the (sorry to say) hordes of unskilled yet good-natured volunteers throwing money at these organizations. 
          We began our work at Yanapay, happy to be with a noble, financially transparent institute.  At this point, I hand the blog over to Karen.  I am now taking online courses as prerequisites to my Master’s program that begins in the fall, and I am drowning in a deluge of writing assignments; combined with 2 hours of Spanish and 3-5 hours of teaching every day, the blog has inevitably taken a back seat. 
          Luckily Karen is here to tell the story of Yanapay, and our current work in the Institute for Blind Children.  Just so you can imagine your narrator, telling the story, here is a picture of Karen on an archaeological dig in Ireland (that’s her on the right).
Just out of curiosity, does anybody else think think that Karen looks like….
(scroll down…)
Shaggy 2 Dope from ICP?



Finally, Video

Hello everyone!

We returned from the Galapagos today (it was incredible), and are at long last enjoying the right combination of hardware, software, connectivity, and time required to post these videos.  To anyone who has been anticipating this long overdue post, I sincerely apologize. 

First, we present you with three songs written for the Mother’s Day celebration at Escuela Santa Ana de Pedregal.  The first is the brilliantly titled “Mi Mama Me Mima Mucho (My Mom Spoils Me a Lot)”.  These kids have lots and lots of energy, which made them fun to work with.  The paper airplane flying by during the intro says it all. 


Mi Mama me mima mucho, por eso digo gracias.

Mi Mama me dio vida, esta cancion es suyo.

Desde lo profundo de mi corazon:

Gracias mamita, ella me cuida, y te quiero mucho.

(Translation: My mom spoils me a lot, for this I say thank you. / My mom gave me life, this song is for her. / From the bottom of my heart: thank you mom, you take great care of me, and I love you so much.)

Next we have the solemn and thoughtful homage to home, “Nuestro Hogar (Our Home)”, written and performed by grades 5-7 of the same school.  The theme of this song was chosen while rapidly backpedalling away from the theme of “Moms” (see our post from the Sierra for more details).  If anyone has read that post and is wondering, Darwin is the kid on the yellow block, in the blue fleece.

The lyrics are:

(Translation: Our home, the rivers are strong, and the volcanos are huge, and the trout is delicious.  /  Our home, we love the way it is, because the people are good, and life is beautiful.  /  From the central park of Machachi to the peak of Cotopaxi / All of this is my beautiful land, all of this is my beloved home.)

Thirdly and lastly from this school, we have “Dia de la Madre”, a pretty waltz for the mothers.  These kids were really motivated students, except for that one in the back.  He was pretty much over us from the beginning, but we managed to trick him into participating occasionally. 

If we could do it over again, I would probably arrange the song so that these 6 year old kids didn’t have to try to sing that Isaac Hayes style bass melody I wrote for the chorus.  Oopsy daisies!


En este Dia de la Madre quiero decir que te amo (repeat).

Me gusta ayudar mi mama en la casa, y me gusta cantar porque la amo tanto.

(Translation: On this Mother’s Day, I want to say that I love you.  / I like to help my mom in the house / And I sing because I love her so much.)

We began working with the community of plantain farmers the following week, and although we spent just 4 short days there, they were fruitful (no pun intended) and memorable.  The older half of the school wowed us by crafting an extremely mature set of lyrics about love, and putting them to a slow R+B groove.  This song is called “Incomparable”.


El amor es incomparable con todo lo que hay en el mundo.

Nada puede igualarlo, nada compara el amor, que yo siento por ti.

Tu no puedes imaginar, lo que siento por ti.  Te necesito como el aire. 

Las palabras que me decias eran muy bonitas, pero no se comparan a ti. 

Por amor yo haria qualquier cosa.  Por amor, cruzaria los mares.

Para mi, tu eres mi sol, y te quiero. 

(Translation: Love is incomparable to anything in the world. / Nothing can equal it, nothing can compare to the love that I feel for you.  / You can’t imagine what I feel for you.  I need you like I need air.  /  The words you said to me, were beautiful, but they can’t compare to you.  / For love, I’d do anything.  For love, I’d cross the seas.  For me, you are my sunshine, and I love you.)

Finaly, here are the younger kids from that school, singing their perpetual motion singalong “Mis Amigos” amidst the banana trees. It is an ode to friendship.


Mis amigos son amables, con ellos me gusta jugar

Mis amigos son respetos, con ellos my gusta cantar

Nos gusta jugar en la loma y en el columpio

Nos gusta jugar en la ronda, mis amigos me quieren mucho.

(Translation: My friends are nice, we like to play together. / My friends are respectful, we like to sing together.  / We like to play on the hill, and the swingset. / We like to play in the field, my friends really care about me.) 

We are very sad to say that we don’t currently have any video from our latest endeavor in the private schol.  We are working hard to get our hands on that footage (and it is out there, we saw people filming), but it could be a while before we track it down and get it uploaded.  It really is a shame because they wrote some really great music with us and we’d love to show it to you. 

We’ll let you know as soon as that happens.  In the meantime, we have to get to Peru before our Ecuadorian visa expires later this week!  We’re leaving our new favorite country in the world behind for the unknown, with vitually no connections and very tenuous plans.  Hopefully our luck will continue as it has been and everything will come together at the last minute. See you soon, hopefully…

Private School

Guayaquil, Ecuador

We spent the weekend following our stay at the plantain farm at a handsome beach town named Los Pedernales, drinking alchoholic masterpieces that took twenty times as long to make as they did to drink. We returned to El Carmen mid-Sunday having been burnt to crisps by the equatorial sun, to say goodbye to Sra. Nina and her family.

We were about to spend a week with our first private school of our tour.  The director had offered us free room and board in her daughter house, directly adjacent to the school.  Tamara, our host, welcomed us warmly and we instantly felt at home. Mancha, however, did not.  On the account of there being no chickens to molest or other dogs to manch (it´s a verb now), she quickly accumulated a reserve of nervous energy that she channeled into a psychotic fugue at every mealtime.  From the moment the pan hit the stove, she would wedge her little face under the patio door and scream as if being tortured.  When we inevitably let her in she would do spastic cartwheels under the table, howling uncontrollably; halfway through the week she even started defying gravity and scaling our pant legs to get at the food. This ruined every meal, and moreover our good graces with Tamara.

Trying to reconcile Mancha´s maniacal hunger and Tamara´s growing frustration was a strain on all of us.  I personally hit rock bottom when, out of pure desperation, I got down on my hands and knees and started barking back at her.  It shocked her into silence for three seconds, but of course it didn’t change her behavior.  Nothing did.

On Monday we began working with Berta Delgado private school.  The difference in the quality of education between public and private schools in Ecuador is drastic.  On the plantain farm, we had worked with a public school so underserved by the government that the one person that worked there couldn´t take a sick day without cancelling school.  According to Sra. Nina, the students there were so starved for education that they made a calendar to count the days until Summer 2012, when we had promised to return.

In contrast, Berta Delgado had a complete faculty of highly dedicated professors.  They worked closely with the director, Sra. Mariana, to coordinate the curriculum and ensure that each student felt attended to and supported.  The class sizes were reasonable (as opposed to the public school downj the road, which had a 70:1 ratio of students to teachers).  The level of literacy was far superior to what we were used to, and their homework was always completed thoughtfully and with creative flair.  Perhaps most telling was that the teachers of all of the other schools in El Carmen sent their kids to Berta Delgado.

Improbably, this school had also scheduled a belated Mother´s Day celebration, giving us another perfect opportunity to present the student´s work.  Having already learned the hard way in Cotopaxi, we ignored the director’s suggestion to compose songs on the theme of “Mothers”; the students ultimately chose the topics “Animals”, “Home”, and “Love”.  Writing music with them was a pleasure. We had the support of the teachers, a deadline to inspire hard-work and focus, and a great group of kids.  They showed true initiative in the classroom – they really seemed to enjoy learning.

We had been further exploring the idea of teaching English through music, and had found using visual aides to be an effective component our vocab-building repetoire.  As a compliment to the “Hokey Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders…”, we had gotten into the practice of drawing diagrams of each other, with the pertinent parts labeled. At one point, I drew this picture of Karen.

She took one look at it and responded, “Are you trying to draw me like an scary elf?  Just for that I´m going to make your nose bigger.”  Which of course is exactly what an scary elf would do.

In the middle of the week we visited another private school.  It had a gorgeous campus, served grades 1-12, and propogated the teachings of Jesus.  We made a 40 minute presentation there, after which the students unanimously requested an encore.  Flattered, we obliged.  Three encores later we realized that they were just procrastinating on going back to class, so we took a bow and left.

The Mother´s Day celebration was impressive, for several reasons.  Almost all of the parents were there, as well as brothers, sisters, and alumni that had graduated years ago.  More than 300 people were in attendance to support the students and their creativity.  The teachers had erected a stage with floodlights, hired a professional sound engineer, and had constructed several backdrops for the school play.  Most memorable was the poster of the director with a random person of color holding a baby, which (in her own words) was designed to convey how modern the school was.

Our part of the presentation went as well as we had hoped.  There was microphone on my banjo, and another mic that the students passed amongst themselves like perfect angels.  The songs we had written together were strong, and they sang with extra confidence because they knew it.

After our three classes had presented, they refused to return to their seats, protesting “Hokey Pokey!  Hokey Pokey!”.  What could we do but play it, and then segue into “Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes”?  It was during this last part that I had an out of body experience.  Karen was leading the dance with the kids on the ground, I alone remained on stage. In one, wierd instant I realized that everything I had done in my life had led me to this moment; that I was playing banjo and singing the “Hokey Pokey” for 300+ Ecuadorians through a concert-grade PA system, and for the first time ever I thought “what the hell am I doing with my life?” in a good way, and began laughing hysterically inside my own head.

The grand finale was a ballet, presented by the girls in grades 5-7.  Their level of proficiency alone demonstrated beyond any doubt the superiority of an Ecuadorian private school education.  These kids really were cared for, and were thriving.

Unfortunately, our video camera died a mysterious and tragic death the night before the concert, so we don´t have any documentation of their songs.  We are working hard to track down people that filmed the event, because their performance was truly impressive and deserves to be seen.

The next day we left for Guayaquil, a city that feels like home.  In a bad way.  Malls, gated communities, manicured parks and chain restaurants line the streets.   We only have seen the area by the airport, so admittedly we have no idea of what´s actually going on here, but so far it feels a lot like Deleware.  Unfortunately, they don´t allow guns or roller skates here so I guess my plans for the weekend are shot.

And… so concludes the first half of our story.  We are exactly halfway through the trip.  Tomorrow we are celebrating by embarking on a totally gratuitous, week-long trip to the Galapagos with Karen´s mom.  We don´t plan to encourage any arts there, but I guess you never know.

If anyone is still (or ever was) following our Mancha subplot, we decided to keep her.  She becomes (barring unforeseen disasters) a U.S. citizen on June 8th, when we ship her home with Karen´s mom to run, play, and wait for us on Long Island.  We already miss her little, barking head.

The Plantain Farm

El Carmen, Ecuador

We had everything that we could have asked for in the Sierra: a little home with a heater and plastic floor for Mancha to relieve herself on, intelligent and cooperative students that loved “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”, endless potential day trips up and around Ecuador´s highest peaks… who wouldnt´ve considered spending a third week there, and extending the curriculum to justify it?  We waffled on the issue throughout the second week, ultimately coming down on the side of leaving for the coast, the determining factor being that there were two schools to the west that wanted us to visit, and only two free weeks remaining on our visa. We informed the teachers that Friday would be our last day.

Unfortunately, due to health concerns, we had to take Friday off to go to the nearest vet an hour away, thus missing our chance to say goodbye to the students, teachers and families.  When we returned that evening, the school was abandoned, save for three girls that lived close by and had waited for us.  They politely requested that we make up the class on Saturday, to review all of the English vocab songs and games that we had worked on.  Moved by their request, we spent that night designing a scavenger hunt for their final quiz.

This turned out to be a complete waste of time, because in reality they didn´t want to have class at all; they had planned us a suprise party!  When we came into the classroom at 6am we saw this copious candy buffet, obviously catered by 11 year olds, crowned by an enormous chocolate cake.

We made a valiant effort to finish our breakfast of animal crackers and fruit flavored marshmellows, but eventually lied and told them that we´d finish the rest  for lunch.  We wrapped everything up with an all-inclusive concert of our singalongs.  It was a small, but touching and generous send-off.

All of that cake, though, did not agree with our plans for the evening, which were to explore the glaciers of the second highest volcano in Ecuador: Cotopaxi. Our wardrobe was as inappropriate as our nutritional choices, and less than thirty minutes into our hike, we were plunging our sneakers and ankle socks deep into virgin snow, freezing and crashing from too much cake.  Karen was falling over so much that she earned the name Karen Fallsen.  I on the other hand became known as Luke Schliders on the account of my natural, penguinlike ability to turn my infrequent missteps into graceful pirhouettes. (Ed note from Karen: That`s not true, you`re called Luke Schliders because you fell down the mountain.) Cotopaxi was spectacularly gorgeous, so much so that I´ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.  Unfortunately, it was impossible to get any that didn´t have Karen falling down in them.


Just kidding here´s one.        

The next day, we left for the coast.  You often hear of altitude sickness affecting travellers in South America, but it´s always in reference to an ascent.  Nobody ever talks abour how awful it is to fly down the curviest road in existence at 90 MPH, the temperature and humidity rising so fast that you can´t tear off your layers fast enough to compensate, passing by overturned trailers to your left and countless unseen wrecks in the abyss to your right, with a puppy sleeping on your head.

When we finally reached Santo Domingo, we were greeted by a fast talking, sketchy local who insinuated that he was going to make our luggage disappear unless we bought him an empanada.  We had been thoroughly warned that the coast was a dangerous place for tourists, most convincingly by people who themselves were from there.  So I bought him the empanada.

Our contact, Sra. Nina (the mother of our Spanish teacher in Baños) finally arrived to shepherd us to her plantain farm, an hour away by bus.  We had settled into our seats and had finally lulled our puppy to sleep when the police pulled us over to search everyone on the bus for drugs and guns.  We knew then beyond any doubt that our carefree days in the Safe Part of Ecuador were over.  Nevertheless, we arrived on the farm, safe and sound.

Mancha was the first one in our party to realize that life on the farm is amazing.  She jumped out of her carrying case and immediately adopted the nearest dog as her uncle, at once picking the first of an endless string of play fights that they were to share.  Before we had put our bags down, Mancha had already been attacked by fire ants, plucked feathers from a live chicken, and had gotten fleas… and was loving it. It was at this moment that our growing insecurity about our decision to keep Mancha developed into a tangible worry.  In order to properly explain what was happening in our heads at this point requires me to go into a blog sub-entry.  Please feel free to skip over it if you don´t give a shit.

The Ballad Of Mancha

In Muyuna, the indigenous jungle community accessible only by canoe, there is nothing to do. In order to cope with the incredible lack of entertainment there, the kids spend every waking moment going completely bezerk.  They dropkick each other during class, howl like monkeys from the tops of the tallest trees, throw cacao husks at hornets´nests, and literally swing from the rafters.  They perform moves on each other that are usually done only by professional wrestlers, things that would kill a normal person; but in Muyuna, the victim always gets up, laughs, and then gets even.  Life in the community is an endless, zany dance of retaliation, without any parental guidance or interference.  Mancha was born in this community, and it shows.

She is a lunatic.  She eats animal waste in all flavors, bites people´s faces, happily jumps off of high ledges onto her head, and frequently charges headfirst into fights with the biggest, scariest dogs she can find.  Most comically, she is obsessed with food.  Look at this picture. 

This food is going into her mouth. How is that possible?  Please click on it to get the high resolution version and email me if you can explain how she´s doing that.  And look at how fat she is!  It´s moments like this that earned her the middle name “Rat-Dog”.

We decided to “save her” after our teaching stint in Muyuna.  She was one of five puppies whose mother was too sick to give milk.  They spent their time wandering in and out of dangerous situations and cowering together for warmth in the rain.  Two minutes after we put in our official adoption request (literally, I´m not making this up), she vomited a living, four inch long parasitic worm.

Our North American, pet-loving instincts took over and we carried her to the vet straight away.  We got her anti-parasitic medicine, toys, and a little button down fleece jacket to keep her warm in the Sierra.  We began obsessively researching agri-control regulations on bringing a live animal back to the US.  We slept with her between us in bed, and spent every moment that we were away from her feeling guilty about it.  We wrote off everyone in Ecuador´s advice against pampering her (including the vet´s) as unenlightened nonsense.  As far as we were concerned, she had won the animal lottery.

For some reason, however, she didn´t act particularly grateful.  She constantly cried to go outside, and every time we conceded, she would try her best to get lost.  She wagged her tail happily at strangers, but would often look at us blankly or wander away nonchalantly whenever we tried to get her attention.  As more than one local had told us, “Ecuadorian dogs choose their owners”.   Sometimes it seemed like Mancha was trying to choose anybody but us.

When we arrived on the farm, the reality of the situation became crystal clear.  Mancha is an outside dog.  She loves terrorizing livestock, trying to climb into the outhouse toilet, and eating trash.  Natural selection had made her this way.  Our dreams of her adapting to life in a Brooklyn apartment were shattered.

But the question remains: where should we put her? On one hand, the farm is the perfect place for her.  On the other hand, there were several very compelling signs that we shouldn´t even consider it.  For example, as we approached the farm for the first time, we had to step over the scavenged remains of the neighbor´s dog, dead in the road.  The owner´s of the recently departed managed the chicken hatchery next door, a massive open-air warehouse where chickens hearts routinely exploded from heat stroke.

They had done it the grave disservice of throwing the dead chickens to the dogs, thereby giving them a taste for raw meat.  It, along with two of it´s friends, had stalked and killed 148 of 150 of Sra. Nina´s free range chickens (at $10 a head) and had done similar damage in all of the surrounding farms.  An anonymous neighbor had laid out a strip of raw, poisoned meat for the dogs, and this one had been the first to find it.  Nina swore that it wasn´t her, but neither she nor anybody else was exactly investigating the murder.

Another red flag was that one of the dogs on the farm had the saddest case of mange I´ve ever seen, and looked like she had barely survived being dunked in acid.   She mostly kept to herself, but at one moment when nobody was looking she jammed her head in Mancha´s bag and ate all of her vitamins.  Although she looked like she really needed them, we were still worried because she had ingested more than 50 times the perscribed dosage.  Immediately afterwards she ran into the woods and didn´t come back for 2 days.  During this time, everyone took turns speculating on what had happened to her; the two most likely scenarios being that either a bunch of plantains had fallen on her head, or that she had eaten some leftover poison meat.  The one thing that was taken for granted by all was that she was dead.  Her owner, Sra Nina´s 17 year old daughter, cried inconsolably all night.    She ultimately returned, thank God, probably having run to Venezuela and back without stopping, hopped up on calcium and iron. We never told anyone about the vitamins.

The thing is that Ecuadorians, in general, percieve their pets differently.  They have a place and a function.  They are loyal gaurds that live outside.  When we asked Nina if she thought Mancha will grow up to be a good dog, we meant, “Will she learn to stop terrorizing everything and learn to reciprocate our love?”

She responded, “Well, if you keep the dog inside, it will be weak.  But if you keep it outside, it will run, and have strong legs and grow big, and it will be a good dog.” I have to admit that my first reaction was of relief, and I thought “Oh good.  We can just keep her inside then.”

So we continue to wonder every day: should we give her a coddled, cared for life in the States, complete with all of the frustrations of leashes, living rooms and dog food?  Or the down and dirty realness of Ecuadorian farm life, to enjoy nobody-knows-how few days of utopian indulgence?  Is one subjectively better?  What does she want?  What should we do with our Rat-Dog?

The Plantain Farm, cont´d;

Life on the farm was enlightening in another way: we learned about plantain production.  This particular farm produces 50 cardboard crates of plantains every week.  Of these 50 crates, about half of them are sold to Colombia, and the other half are sold to the Dole Fruit Co. The contrast in protocol for production for the two clients is astounding.

The Colombian plantains are grown organically, and are taken directly from the tree and boxed for shipping.  These are the plantains that the farmers themselves eat.  They are yellow on the inside, and are delicious.  I know this because every single thing that we ate that week was made from plantains from the Colombian supply (you wouldn´t believe how many different dishes can be made from plantains).  They sell for $2.25 a box.

By contrast, Dole requires that perforated plastic bags coated with pesticide be placed over every bunch of plantains from infancy.  Additional treating agents must be used at several stages before the plantain is harvested.  Dole has extremely strict guidelines for the appearance of plantains, and will send back any plantains that have any blemishes of any kind, regardless of whether or not it affects the quality of the fruit, at the owner´s expense.  These plantains are white inside and are not delicious, as evidenced by the fact that nobody on these farms would ever eat one.  But Dole pays $5.25 a box, so everyone plays ball.  The extra work is a pain and costs the owners significantly more in labor, and moreover it´s dangerous work.  In lieu of a ladder, the workers reach the treetops using a bamboo pole with tiny nubs for rungs.  Our first day there, a worker from a neighboring farm fell from such a pole and broke both of his knees.


At any rate, we started working with the local school on Tuesday.  Of all the schools we had visited, this was the most underserved.  There was only one teacher for all forty students, across seven grades.  Every day, each class got thirty minutes of new material, and then was given an in-class assignment to keep them in their seats.  As if this weren´t bad enough, the teacher (whose name is Patricia) was accountable for teaching  the government-mandated curriculum, but was still waiting on the second half of the student´s workbooks to arrive, so the ones that she had sat untouched behind her desk.  Worst of all, the students were the sons and daughters of migrant workers, who (as we were told) rarely saw the value of education and did nothing to support it.  In general (again, as we were told), the parents felt that the students were destined to be laborers as they were, and that the school mainly served as an impediment to their “real” education. For this reason, Patricia rarely assigned homework that could potentialy exceed the student´s current ability because there was nobody to help them with it and no time to correct it.

To her enormous credit, Patricia was the only one who seemed to be suffering for all of the deficiencies.  She left her home every day at 5:30am to give herself enough time to walk the long dirt road to school, to teach seven grades simultaneously.  Considering the obstacles, we must say in our opinion the students at the school were recieving the best education possible, and were very disciplined and amiable.

One thing that was “hilarious”, however, was that when we showed up, everyone including the teacher started yelling “Dean!” and welcoming me back to the school.  After a few very confusing and awkward moments did the children realize with great dissapointment that I was not Dean, and explained to me that another volunteer from the U.S. who “looked exactly like me” had taught English in their school a year ago.

This is particularly funny for 2 reasons.  1) Karen´s ex-boyfriend of 5 years is also named Dean, and having to listen politely while everyone declared all week long that “Dean did the exact same thing as you, but a year earlier!”, and “You look just like Dean, but with more hair,” was awesomely annoying.  2) I saw a picture of the volunteer Dean, and not to insult the guy, but I didn´t think I looked exactly like that.

Anyways, the students learned with great eagerness.  We explained harmony, rhythm and lyricism to the kids, and through letting them vote on their favorite aspects of each, we composed two pieces of music that I genuinely enjoy.  First is the playful waltz “Mis Amigos”, recorded amongst the plantain trees with the little kids.  Second is the R&B slowjam “Incomparable”, an ode to love itself, which was written by the kids in grades 5-7.  I promise I will get these videos up soon, when we find a f#%>&g computer that lets us upload the films.  We now owe you 5, we´re sorry for the delay.

A quick note in Spanish in case any of the students or teachers are looking for them: (Lo siento mucho por estar atrasado con los videos, no podemos encontrar una computadora que funcione con nuestra videograbadora… te prometo que pondremos los videos aqui este semana.  Vuelva pronto!)

Our four days with the students felt much too short.  The last day, after presenting their songs, the students came forth to present us with hand made thank-you cards.  They were beautifully written and constructed.  Some of the better blurbs, translated from Spanish: “Your visit was a gift from God”, “We can never possibly forget you”, and “Please don´t go!!!!”.  They were so generous with their praise that it made us laugh, but the cards were still extremely heartwarming and confirmed our growing certainty that we would come back soon and devote more time to working specifically with them.

Returning to the city Friday afternoon was a serious shock to our system after three weeks of being off the grid.  We begin anew tomorrow, in a much bigger, private school here in El Carmen.  Being in the city is a bit stressful, but the director has been really enthusiastic about bringing us since she first heard of our program, the room and board are free, and it´s already arranged.  So, more on that soon!

Mother´s Day

As much fun as we were having in Baños, the time had come for us to take our puppy and head to the High Sierra.

We had lined up a teaching gig in Santa Ana de Pedregal, a tiny community found at 15,500 feet, set in a surreal and stunningly beautiful world of snowcapped volcanoes and uninhabited hillside.  Up here there is a constant, lonesome “Shh…” of the wind blowing through the tall grass that, when it ushers in the cold night, is both invigorating and somehow deeply morbid.

The culture seems to be a product of these forces.  Five minutes after arriving in town, as we trudged down the cobblestone street with all of our possesions strapped to our backs, we passed a local woman sitting on a rock alongside the road.  We waved in a polite hello, to which she responded by pointing to our puppy and saying “Va a morir (she is going to die)”.  Welcome to Santa Ana!

As I have previously mentioned, we had turned down free room and board in a nearby adventure tourism lodge, on account of their no-puppy policy.  For this reason, when we arrived at the school, we still had no idea where we were going to stay.  When we mentioned this to the director, she immediately insisted that we stay at the school, in a vacant, standalone classroom next to the bathroom.  We were very grateful and relieved at our fortune, until we saw it.

In order to enter, we had to limbo under the boards that had been nailed across the door.  The floor was made of pebbles and mud, and was furnished with only a giant, trash-filled oil drum.  Our first impression was that it seemed like a fantastic place to get murdered.  And they wouldn´t take no for an answer.

Resigning ourselves to a week of freezing hell, and the possibility that the woman in the road was psychic, we headed to the cafeteria to meet the faculty.  We were absorbed in describing our program to the teachers and forcing down our cold plate of rice with spaghetti, so much so that we didn´t notice the epic transformation happening outside.  As we chatted about our curriculum, the students (who had abandoned their classes on their teacher´s orders) had begun to convert our solitary confiement unit into a studio apartment.  I finally noticed the event when my peripheral vision caught a bedframe being carried across the lawn by six little students, a coffee table and two chairs following closely behind.   By the time they had finished it was as comfortable an accomodation as any we have had on this tour.  Extreme Home Makeover: Ecuador!

We began teaching the next day.  Normally we give the students the freedom to choose the theme and lyrical content to the songs we compose together, but this time was different.  Upon learning that we were going to compose songs with the children, the faculty insisted that the theme be “mothers”, and that the students present these songs to their parents on Thursday, at their annual Mother´s Day celebration.  We were excited that there was a natural opportunity for the students to present their work, but also a little nervous about forcing the students to talk about their family.  We vowed to be diligently sensitive.

Things started off extremely well.  The students were receptive to the program, and moreover well behaved and intelligent. We instantly got the impression that the school was well-run.  The students took on their task enthusiastically and often begged to do exercises “one more time”, usually several times.  The only catch was that we were now teaching six hours a day instead of two; a sobering lesson in energy management that caused Karen to permanently cross off being a full-time teacher off her list of possible outcomes.

The next day, while brainstorming with the kids about friends, family, and mothers to generate lyrical content, I noticed that one kid wasn´t participating.  I continued to try to engage him but he silently refused.  When I kneeled next to him and softly asked him to “please say something”, he began to cry.  I looked up to the assistant teacher, who grimaced and gave me the universal sign for “dead”.  I felt the floor fall out from under me.  I thought we had disaster-proofed our lesson plan by brainstorming about friends as well as family; but looking back at the board where we had enumerated the other student´s praises for their mothers, I realized we had crossed the line.

The other students, bless them, all moved quickly to console him.  We called for a 5 minute recess, and began frantically brainstorming about what to do next.  We decided to change the theme of the song from “family” to “home”, and began the lyric writing section anew.  By the end of the class, the student (whose name is Darwin) had contributed a few great ideas and appeared to be feeling better.

The next day was Mother´s Day.   The fathers arrived in the early morning and slaved over the grill to prepare a feast for the mothers.  The chairs and benches were extracted from the classroom and arranged in a semi-circle in the courtyard, forming a stage.  The mothers began to arrive, and it was fascinating for us to absorb the style and custom of the High Sierra.  The men get off the hook and often dress casual-modern-trucker; but the women all layer themselves in ornate blankets, and each adorning themselves with a unique fedora hat.  They all were quick to smile, but beyond that very quiet and still.  Their dress and mannerisms are a perfect compliment, and a practical response, to the vast, silent countyside.

Our fascination with the morbidity of the culture here gained serious depth throughout the presentation.  Other than the three songs that we performed with the three different classes, every presentation was on the subject of death.  The school play focused on one woman´s plight to find her stolen baby, during which she gouged out her own eyes to pay for a clue, only to discover that the baby was taken by Death itself (played by a 9 year old named Joel, who delivered the ultimate line of the play: “Now I´m going to take your baby to an unknown land!”) There were many interstital DJ sets in between performances, and the lyrics to all of the songs were about love, drinking or suicide.  With regards to their relationship to the hereafter, however, the most profound insight was saved for last.

The principal announced that the students were going to read poems to their mothers.  I sat frozen in anticipation, horror and curiosity, unable to imagine what was going to happen when Darwin was asked to read his.  The others in his class went first, and the majority of them burst into tears at some point during their poems and had to be consoled by their mothers.  Whether this was due to the subtext regarding Darwin, or whether the kids were just emotional, I´m still not sure.  Throughout the readings Darwin stood to the side, his head hung the same way that it had been during class, crying only to himself in a way that seemed to me very dignified and mature, which of course only made it sadder.  When it was his turn to read his poem, he held the microphone silently for a few moments, then handed both it and his pòem to the principal, and retired to the classroom.

The principal recited his poem for him, slowly and clearly, and it began: “Dear mother, you have left my side.  Who is left to comfort me?  Living without a mother is grief beyond comparison.”  I didn´t catch all the words, but I heard enough that I also was overcome with emotion and started to cry.  Some of the children were sobbing, holding their mothers for dear life.  There wasn´t a dry eye in the courtyard.

On cue the DJ segued the poetry reading into a dance party.  A few couples stood and took to the dance floor, giving me a moment to reflect.  Some thoughts that stay with me from this moment are 1) It was inevitable that Darwin was going to have an extremely difficult, emotional week (in fact the entire presentation was designed to be particularly intense for him), and aside from the fact that I didn´t diagnose his reticence quickly enough I shouldn´t feel too guilty about his experience in our program.  2) A public school U.S. would never in a million years put on a program this raw and death-oriented, and once I had recovered from my shock at how far they had taken it, I found myself wondering if maybe this was actually healthy?  3) On the other hand, though, beyond their healthy expression of sadness at loss, why are these people so morbid?!  Every song that was being played under these meditations was about death.  And people were happily dancing to them!

The dancing continued long into the night.  The teachers pulled me up and took turns feeding me mysterious shots from recycled plastic bottles.  I soon found myself loving the dance of the High Sierra.  It´s a humble shuffle that anybody with two feet can do.  Having come from Colombia, where everybody is freaking Juan Travolta, I was relieved to look around and feel like I was dancing as well as everybody else.  This is something that has NEVER happened before, and my confidence only grew with every shot that the patrolling grandmothers/bartenders forced me to take from their crumpled plastic bottles.  When the sun set, the DJ moved his rig into the 1st grader´s classroom and we continued to lay waste to both the room and our sobriety.  As the hours drew in the night the DJ masterfully and imperceptably increased the tempo, so that before we knew what was happening the slow shuffle had become a wild hoedown, with everyone trading off partners and throwing them around the room.  Darwin was there, smiling, playing with his classmates and shaking his head at the debauchery.  It was, in fact, the greatest party I have ever been to; and a profoundly vibrant exhibition that completely banished the idea of death, at least for a little while.

We had such a great week in Santa Ana that we asked to stay for another.  The director was happy to have us, but asked that we integrate an English component into our program.  At first I was hesitant, as I am not an English teacher and have never claimed to be, but when she explained to us how valuable it was to have native speakers, especially those that can teach with music, we conceded.

We have just finished our second day of teaching English, and we both feel it couldn´t have gone better.  The kids have been jumping at the chance to sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”, and do the “Hokey Pokey”.  At this point, we can´t imagine teaching English without music.  We have also been composing original material for themes that we can´t find preexisitng songs for (daily activities, numbers 1-100, etc.)  We plan to make these available on our website for other teachers in the near future.

In the meantime, we´re going to try to be as alert as possible while we´re still here, amidst the giants.

PS – Darwin is loving the English classes and is the fastest learner in his grade.

PPS – Videos and lyrics of the original songs from the students of Santa Ana coming soon.  This computer won´t let me upload them.

PPPS – Happy Mother´s Day Mom!! (From Luke and Karen)


Baños, Ecuador

We first realized something was wrong on our bus ride back to Baños, when everyone flocked to the window and began taking pictures with their cellphones.  We craned our heads down to see what the fuss was about, and saw a huge column of black smoke rising from beyond the mountains, where we knew Baños was located.  The man next to us, assuming we didn´t speak Spanish, made a dramatic signal with his hands which confirmed our suspicion.

The volcano Tungurahua was erupting.

Luckily for us and for the puppy, who had been keeping it together like a champ considering it was her first bus ride and she was on a serious dose of anti-parasitic medication, Baños had not been quarantined from this direction.

When we arrived, everyone appeared nonplussed.  The only difference we noticed was that the tour operators were all in the streets and were being uncharacteristically pushy in their effort to drum up business.  Most of the tourists had fled at the sign of smoke, but for the locals this was not uncommon.  We had heard stories of similar volcanic activity from Tungurahua in recent past, mainly lots smoke and small tremors.

What is uncommon, however, is that for the last 30 hours there has been a steady downpur of volcanic ash that has completely covered everything and has saturated the atmosphere.  When we woke up the next morning, it was if it had snowed, but the coating was a deep, unsettling grey instead.  High winds pushed clouds of suffocating smoke around the city.  Everyone was wearing masks and protective glasses.  Every thirty seconds you can hear and feel the growl of Tungurahua, threatening worse.

We have spent the day trying to stay on track and get our errands done while shielding ourselves from the seriously harmful quantities of ash being kicked up by cars and pushed around by the high wind.  Our surgical masks and glasses filter some but not all of the cloud.  The inside of our heads hurt and itch from the residue.

We are leaving tomorrow morning for the High Sierra, in the province Cotopaxi.  We were offered free room, board, and tour guides (an +/- $100 a day value) in exchange for our program in the community we are visiting, but because they have a no pets policy we have spent more than 10 hours on the internet combing the community, which has no web presence, for a random citizen who will rent us a room instead where we can stay with our puppy.  By calling friends of friends of hotel owners, we found the name of a taxi driver named Armando, who told me over the phone to call him when I got into town and he could help us find a place.  We´ll let you know how it goes.

Sucks that we´re going to miss out on our one chance at high luxury, but seriously, could you put this puppy in a kennel?