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!