We kept the puppy!
Welcome to the "All Together Now" Travel Blog!
We kept the puppy!
Our time in the Oriente of Ecuador is coming to a close, and we feel compelled to put into words how interesting, rich, and wonderful our experience has been here.
The spirit of the people who lived in the jungle in Pre-Colonial times has survived and still thrives in the present day. Of course it has evolved with the various cultures that have come into contact with the area; but being from the United States, where the indigenous people live in a parallel, marginalized universe, it is fascinating to see that the character of the indigenous people of this region is still vibrant and self-sustaining. It is also totally integrated into the fabric of the national psyche and identity; moreso now than ever as President Correa has recently mandated that Kichwa be taught in schools alongside Spanish where it is natively spoken.
Our awareness of how this culture functions have been spooled out to us in manageble increments by Mercedes and her family. Through countless discussions over meals, in transit, or just sitting around into the night, we keep recieving spoonfuls of information that have illuminated the culture of the Napo region, through the lens of their experience.
Kichwa, the language of the Incans, is Mercedes´ and her husband Fausto´s first language. They learned Spanish as adults when they had children, because it is the required first language in Ecuadorian schools. Fausto´s grandfather was a famous shaman that cared for all of Tena, which is to say he cured people using natural remedies. Mercedes gave birth to her first daughter under a cacao tree in the first-growth rainforest, without any technology anywhere nearby and only Fausto to help with the delivery. Almost everything that needs doing, in fact, they do themselves. Fausto is building an extention to the house from wood that he chopped himself, from a tree that fell on his property. They spend every weekend working on their farm to harvest cacao to sell to the local distributor, and their own fruits and yuca to feed the family. They also hand-make incredible artesenial jewelery out of seeds that they grow in their backyard.
In short, everything about their approach to life seems extremely practical, and has shown us an interesting alternative to the increasingly dominant model of specialization-for-success. Where I´m from, we are strongly encouraged to become an expert on one thing, no matter how miniscule. From that pinpoint of expertise we expect to generate the capital that supports a lifestyle wherin we don´t learn to do much else. Maybe I´m romanticizing it a little, but I cant help but admire people that are so self-sufficient. I´m sure they´ve been bemused at our childlike helplessness but they have been extremely polite about it, not only not laughing in our faces but rather showing us how to each whole fish, start fires, etc.
Today we finished in Escuela Alberto Chimbo – it was a beautiful parting. It was like a Hollywood movie, the tension and release of it. We had taught Monday through Thursday the week before, and halfway through the week (when I wrote the entry “Teaching is Hard”) we had hit our stride. The class was really getting it, we were learning and having fun. Then, late Thursday afternoon, we were informed that Friday was a holiday and that students werent required to go to classes.
We must have looked really disappointed, because Mercedes insisted that we put it to a vote amongst the students whether or not to hold class first thing in the morning on their holiday. I should also note that the night before their day off they had a Baptism after-party that was scheduled to go until dawn and, moreover, this particular national holiday brings with it the biggest tourist boom of the year, during which they were expected to perform their traditional songs and dances all day long for the literal boatloads of tourists that would be arriving. And, on top of that, none of the other teachers were going to be there. So the point is that it was an outrageously bad idea to try to hold class on Friday. Still, Mercedes stood in front of the kids and asked if they would like to study with us on their day off, and slightly more than half of them (most likely out of politeness or sheer awkwardness) said “yes”.
The next day we rang the schoolbell at 9am, and waited outside of the classrooms with our instruments in hand. Unsuprisingly, not one student came. We returned to our bungalow and spent the afternoon packing (we had planned on leaving after our class on Friday), and headed down to the canoe launch just after the sun set. Nobody was around to say goodbye.
The weekend we spent hiking through first-growth jungle and caves around Tena. It was incredible, but thats not the subject of this entry so Ill just give the absolute highlight. A tree had collapsed across our path in the rainforest and we had to take an alternative, unplanned route back to the road, which required us to repel down the center of a raging 50-foot waterfall using a tiny, wet rope without any form of safety harness or gloves. One of the other kids on the trip twisted his leg and our guide almost died when he slipped and fell halfway down rock overlooking the waterfall. It was really dangerous and REALLY cool.
Anyways, we decided to push back our schedule and come back to the community on Monday, to film the performance of their song and get some closure with the kids. Although we had informed everyone well in advance of our plans to return on Monday, for some reason we didn´t find out until late Sunday night that most of the teachers had that day off due to a teachers conference. This made us extremely nervous, but we figured that we should go anyways, in the hope that the kids (against all odds and reason) would wait in their teacherless classroom for us to arrive.
We arrived by canoe early in the morning, and made our way over to the furthest classroom, where we had been working with the older children. It was ominously quiet as we approached. When we reached the door we saw that it was locked, with nobody inside. We sat down, deflated, and I must admit that right then I had a moment of darkness, wherein I cursed the situation and everyone involved with it. Karen put a hand on my head and said something that at the time seemed insanely optimistic: “Maybe they´re waiting for us in the little kids classroom.” I went along with her idea to go check, mainly because it was on the way to the landing where we could catch the next canoe home.
We knocked trepidatiously on the door to the little kids classroom and it swung open, revealing that Karen was right! Not only were they together, waiting for us, but they were practicing songs and dances for the thank-you/goodbye celebration that they had planned for us. My frustration melted and gave way to intense gratitude, and I began to well up as the kids clambored over each other to shake our hands one at a time and say “Buenos dias!”.
Before the celebration was to start however, we had unfinished business: we had to get a recording of “La Comunidad Muyuna”, the latest All Together Now hit single written and performed by the 2nd-6th graders of the Escuela Alberto Chimbo!
La Muyuna Comunidad, hecho de amistad
Somos buenos y guapos y cariñosos
Somos trabajadores y nos gustan animales
Y jugar, y bañar es divertido.
Hay tigres y tortugas
Nuestras vidas son hermosas
Tenemos parajos y perros,
Y estamos feliz, y agradables.
The Muyuna Community is made of friendship
Were good and handsome and caring
We work hard, and we like animals
And we have fun playing and swimming
There are tigers, and turtles
Our lives are beautiful
Weve got birds and dogs
We were happy and friendly
Following this, the thank-you/goodbye ceremony began. First, the girls presented one of their traditional dances – an incredibly elegant, understated display wherein they gently kick their feet, cradle an imaginary bowl filled with chicha, and sway in a perpetual bow which causes their hair to fall from side to side. The fact that all of the girls, regardless of age, could do it effortlessly gave it the appearance of being simple, but only after Karen stood up and tried it with them did I realize how hard it must be. 🙂
Next, the boys did a warrior dance. The older ones had carved artisinal spears, the younger ones held symbolic curtain rods and bronze piping, and the youngest of the group stood there with empty hands, copying his elders with an endearing two second delay. Upon their request I stood up and joined them – and the resulting robot-dance of white-boy shame that I produced catapulted Karens efforts into the “pretty good, actually” catergory.
After the dance, we recapped with one final rendition of “La Comunidad Muyuna”, and a choral presentation of “You Are My Sunshine” from the younger class that was impressive to the point of being quasi-miraculous; we had been working on it all week and until this last performance they had not been able to remember the words all the way through.
We were asked to say a few words of parting advice to the kids, and afterwards we retired to the playground to take pictures, play frisbee, and throw the kids around for the last time (for a while at least). It was the perfect close to a wonderfully unique and inspiring chapter in the All Together Now story.
Please contact us if you are a volunteer interested in visiting to the community, or are able to donate any thing in any way to the Alberto Chimbo School. We have agreed to help coordinate volunteer efforts for the school, as the government has just decreed that mandatory education be extended from 6th grade to 10th (a very positive thing), but will not be giving the school any money to build more classrooms, or buy supplies (a very problematic thing). If you want more information about the community, or want to arrange a donation, please contact us at Info@encouragingarts.org.
The only question that remains now is: should we keep this puppy? Mercedes´dog had puppies two weeks ago, and they´re giving them away. We´ve already named her “Mancha” (meaning “marks” or “stains”, which she has on her nose.)
Hi again! We took the canoe into Mishualli to buy bottled water and instant coffee, the two ingredients needed to make our room-tempurate “crapucinos”, which we´ve been reduced to drinking because neither of us can make a fire. How sad is that? When we told Mercedes that we didn´t know how to make a fire, she told us to “ask one of the children to help us”. Then she showed us the secret of how to start it (which as Karen pointed out, was discovered by things that were much closer to monkeys than humans up to a million and a half years ago), and we´re going to give it a try tonight. More on that later, unless we fail in which case I´ll never mention it again.
Two days ago, Mercedes invited us to her farm, where she and her family grow cacao (the fruit from which chocolate is made), yuca, papaya, and other delicious jungle delicacies. We had the time of our lives.
Not pictured is the trip home on the back of a pickup truck where I came very close to getting decapitated by a low hanging support beam, and the time when Mercedes asked us to whip her with a poisonous, spiny plant to ease her backache. She swore it helped, but it just looked to us like she was breaking out in a scary case of hives. People in the jungle have a natural remedy for everything… except for the huge, itchy welts that have been multiplying on my body since we arrived. Im pretty sure it´s bedbugs, because it´s tied with the other time I had bedbugs for how incredibly badly it sucks. But since we changed beds I haven´t gotten any new ones, and I´m once again beginning to have thoughts that don´t contain the word “miserable” in them.
We have spent the last 48 hours in the community, which has been awesome and challenging. Awesome because the community is incredible. It´s one enormous family, (literally, all the children are cousins), and they are constantly playing around, hanging out, and working together. The young kids love us, we´ve been mostly hanging out with them, swimming in the river, throwing them around, and generally trying to spread our attention equally amongst them.
It´s been challenging though, because TEACHING IS HARD (!), especially in a second language. What I am wondering is: are all kids like this? A large percentage of our energy every day goes into maintaining order and trying to explain why they should be listening. I take some solace in reflecting on my childhood years as a pupil… I was a terrorist. My main perogative growing up was to shatter my teachers´sanity. None of these kids have anything on me, boy. But now, as an adult, I find it hard not to take it personally when kids talk to their neighbor, or don´t do their homework. I have been thouroughly reminded on this tour how much skill goes into teaching, and my respect for those who do it as a career is now cemented.
However, the majority of the class seems interested and happy to have us, which is what matters. We have the rest of the week to win over the remainder. Wish us luck.
The bus ride to Tena was 3.5 hours of pure descent, and until nightfall we watched through the window as the scenery changed from high sierra to Amazon Basin jungle. Upon arrival we contacted Mercedes, who is the director of a school in an indigenous community that is only accessible by canoe. That is all we knew when we arrived, we didn´t have any expectations or information beyond that fact.
We had been put in touch with Mercedes via our friend John Lavas, who had visited the comminuty with the volunteer project World Challenge two years ago. He had given us a sealed envelope filled with pictures that he had taken of the community, and we had (barely) resisted the temptation to tear it open and see what was in store for us.
Mercedes and her family collected us at the terminal, and took us to her home. The first thing we learned through conversation with them is that the overwhelming majority of the region is bilingual, Kichwa (a subdivision of Quechua) being the mother tongue of most people. Mercedes and her family were incredibly hospitable from the moment we met, clearing out a room in her house for us and welcoming us with a mountain of sliced papaya.
We woke up the next morning at 5:30 to catch the bus to Misahaulli, which is the launching point for the canoes which navigate the Rio Napo. They are long, tippy motorboats that sink right up to the ridge when they´re occupied, and they are the only means to reach the many native communities which line the banks of the Rio Napo, which feeds into the Amazon. When we arrived in Misahuali, we were treated to the sight of monkeys darting playfully through the town, grabbing whatever they could get their hands on and curiously tearing it to shreds just out of reach in a tree. We saw a monkey drinking Gatorade, which was a definite highlight.
When we arrived at the community we were immediately impressed and intrigued. This community truly is a “community”; it´s an extended family of about 150 persons that does almost everything together. For example they have a small collection of man-made pools where they breed tilapia, and take turns netting their food for the day, which is brought down to the communal kitchen to be prepared by the mothers of the village. They grow yuca, plantains, and cacao in a communal garden, and all share in the work and enjoyment of the harvest. They have a shaman that they call “Grandfather”, who walks around the village in a button down shirt, carrying a machete. And, sadly, they have a tiger in a cage which spends it´s time pacing back and forth, growling in agitation.
We were offered a room in the on-site home of the director, which is a shack on stilts settled a ways back the village. The staircase was a wet, slippery log with notches caved into it for traction. After watching us navigate it for the first time the director said a few words to a nearby community member and he immediately dissapeared, returning moments later with a chainsaw. The next time we passed by the cabin it had a new wooden staircase.
Our first impresion of the accomodations, and in fact the lifestyle of the community in general, is that they are extremely utilitarian. There´s very little electricity used (mainly for one central lightbulb in each house), no showers, the water comes from a hose that lays aside the main path. Toilets are a new addition to the community and were built by volunteers last year. We spent most of our time hanging out with the kids, watching them throw cacao husks at a wasps nest.
What we found interesting, considering that they choose to live without many modern comforts, is that they are not in any way isolated from the modern world. Up to 200 tourists a day visit the community on a daily basis, and when they do everything stops while community changes into traditional costume and performs their ceremonial songs and dances for people weilding digital cameras and camcorders. When the boats leave, everyone goes back to doing what they were doing. They perserve their way of life although they are well aware of the alternatives and city life is a short canoe ride away. It´s a very impressive (and admittedly for me, very curious) thing that we look forward to understanding more as we spend more time with the community.
The next day the students took the day off, because it was “Teacher´s Day”, and all of the teachers of the region were converging for a celebration. The idea was that they should meet and present a song or dance from the community they represent. What we didn´t learn until the day before is that Mercedes and the other teachers of the community hadn´t prepared anything, and had instead submitted our names as the performers to represent their school, the idea being that volunteerism is a central part of the school´s identity.
We were excited to play American old-time music for the 200-or-so faculty teachers and directors from the region, but we had to wait, because the pueblo where we had met had lost power. The teachers played volleyball patiently while we waited for someone to rent a gas generator several towns away. We found a group of faculty members practicing their songs and danced, drank chicha made from yuca, and oscillated between accepting and declining the endlessly refilled plastic cup of Pilsner that was passed amongst the dancers.
When it was our turn to play, I thought that Mercedes would give us an introduction, but I was wrong. I was handed the microphone, and did my best to offer congratulations in Spanish to the teachers of the Napo province, and briefly explain our project. The microphone cut in and out (as I found out soon after, this was due to the dying generator), and as we played one of the teachers held the microphone alternatively to my mouth and then to my banjo, in lieu of a mic stand. We played our classic G Major medley of Old Time songs and, thankfully, the teachers responded postively, clapping on 2 and 4 for the majority of it. We then announced that we were going to play a classic Ecuadorian song, called “Pobre Corazon”. Again, the crowd clapped in time and some folks sang along. We tried to get a video of our performance to upload here, but our recruited videographer never pushed the record button, so you´ll just have to believe that we were INCREDIBLY GREAT.
Immediately after we performed the generator ran out of gas, circumventing the other performances and the group dance that was planned. We waited around while the head of the committee siphoned the tanks of nearby motorcycles to try to collect enough gas to continue, but people had started to leave, perhaps in a defensive effort to keep the gas in their tanks. So technically, after all, we were the headliner of the night!
Monday we are moving to the community, and we are going to stay there for a week at least. We are really looking forward to it. They have 2 guitars in the village, and only one person there knows how to play. Guitar is a central part of their dance presentation, so hopefully we can encourage some arts and give that guy a day off. More on that soon! In the meantime, watch out for me!
Hello! This is our first video from Ecuador. These are the talented seventh graders from ISPED, singing their very own composition: ¨”Oh, Hermoso Baños.” This class was a pleasure to work with, and having spent 3 weeks in Baños studying Spanish and working in the school, we have started to feel at home here and are reluctant to leave.
On to the jungle…!