23.01.2012 - 05.02.2012 20 °C
We soon discovered that contrary to our previous volunteering experience, our hosts here didn’t have much time to “take care” of us. Esteban was quite taken with his various responsibilities (all of which he does on a voluntary, unpaid basis), while Letitia worked from 7am to 3pm in the daycare all week, and took university classes in Puyo all day Saturday and Sunday. Shirley, the most outgoing of the two twins, was therefore our guide and caretaker. What a character she was! Seven going on twelve…
For the two weeks that followed, we slowly found our place in the village’s daily life:
• Esteban arranged for me to give a few hours of English and computer classes at the school, with help from Alain and the girls. We were only able to do this for three days (school was out for winter vacations), but the children loved it and I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to bond with them. Everywhere I went, children would smile and wave, and run up to me to give me a great big hug!
• Letitia had to go to Puyo for a daylong meeting, so I filled in for her at the daycare. Again, making friends with the affectionate wee ones was quite special.
• Practically every afternoon, we went out to the cancha to teach children and adults how to braid bracelets (a skill we had learned in Puerto Quito, with Pedro’s family) and this became so popular that everyone in town seemed to be sporting one of our multi-coloured bracelet by the time we left!
• The twins being out of school, we ended up taking care of them for the two weeks. I took over Letitia’s kitchen, and learned to cook bananas and soups with next to nothing… The village stores basically sold beer, canned tuna, crackers, eggs and candy. Sometimes, one of the shops also had bread. The rest, you had to harvest from your fields or purchase in Puyo (we therefore indulged in two daytrips to Puyo to stock up!).
• Alain joined the evening “indoor football” games and became quite popular with the local boys (especially when he bought the after-game beer!).
• We went for our daily tarabita run across the river, and treated the girls to a bit more candy than usual to make up for the limited daily diet.
• We met the local parrots, some of which were quite chatty! Saying "hola!" and "vamos!" and cackling like old ladies every time we started to laugh!
• We learned how to make clay bowls with Elsa, Letitia’s sister-in-law: shaping the clay by hand; painting it with natural paints made of various mineral pigment (with small paintbrushes made from her son’s hair); baking it on an open fire and varnishing it with chunks of natural resin.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the weather, Arianne also got sick: fever, muscle pain, vomiting, headaches… knowing that flu and malaria symptoms are almost identical, I had a short period of irrational panic (there are no reported cases of malaria in the area) until we saw the travelling doctor who luckily happened to be in Santa Ana the next day. Diagnosis: throat infection. Treatment: amoxicillin (the same stuff the kids get for ear infections at home). Phew!! Nothing dangerous, and a drug I actually recognized… Thank God! The episode did help remind that we are indeed in the tropics.
Alain and I quite enjoyed our stay, but it was more trying for the girls. The rain, in particular, made it difficult to explore and enjoy some of the village’s best features – swimming in the rio Santandero, playing outside with the local kids, going for tarabita rides, walking the various forest trails… We did a bit of it all, but constantly feeling wet and cold (along with a limited diet) did put a damper on their mood. We actually decided to call it quits for the homeschooling for the duration of our stay – they were sufficiently stressed and grumpy as it was! Thankfully, they got along well with Sacha, Shirley and Samira and the five of them enjoyed some happy times together, watching Disney movies, playing with iPad, swinging on the hamock and buying out the local tienda’s full supply of Ritz crackers!
The most wonderful experience, however, was participating in the village “mingas”: community work where everyone comes together to contribute to a common project. Mingas are as much social as they are work and it is delightful to see the men, women and children combine work and play: they are chatty and love to play pranks on one another, so laughter echoes throughout the day – especially when the traditional “chicha” (a fermented yuka beverage which they revere) is passed around!
Alain joined the men in a Saturday morning minga, where they worked on the tarabita building and grounds – he got to practice his machete skills again, clearing the grasses that had invaded the bus stop.
We also participated in two mingas at the Orchid Garden – a project led by Letitia’s brother Thelmo. Roughly 1km down the road from the village and up in the mountain, they are building a covered orchid garden where one can see a breathtaking variety of orchids collected in the surrounding forests (and augmented by cultivated species), along with a “camino ecologico” – a 2km trail that winds across the tropical forest back to the village. On our first visit, we helped them core “chonta” trunks (a type of palm) to make flower pots in which the orchids would be planted. It is here that we discovered a local delicatessen: a big fat white worm that lives in the trunk of the chonta. They are apparently rich in protein, have a buttery flavor, and are eaten raw, steamed or baked. I tasted a raw one and can’t say I fell in love with the texture, but cooked, they were delicious.
On the second visit, I went alone (while Alain and the girls spent the day in Puyo to recharge their batteries) and was treated to a full-blown rain forest experience… Letitia’s sister Sylvia, her mother Maria and her sister-in-law Elsa invited me to join them as they went to collect orchids deep into the forest. Armed with weaved baskets and machetes, the women led me through the thicket of threes and vines, pointing out the properties of various plants, flowers and trees. We walked for three hours – in the pouring rain – collecting orchids and various fruit for my education and pleasure. At one point, we came across a very tall tree – at least 15m – and Maria, the grandmother, started to squeal with delight. Up there was a particularly delicious fruit she absolutely had to get her hands on… So the women worked at getting to these fruit for at least 45 minutes! Shaking the tree, wrapping vines around its trunk to make a ladder, climbing on one another’s shoulders… To no avail. So Maria took things into her own hands: she disappeared for about 15 minutes and returned, dragging behind her a small tree that must have measured at least 10 meters. I could barely lift that thing off the ground! But she swung it upwards and managed to knock the desired fruit out of the tree. She was simply amazing! And when we finally returned to camp, the others had prepared a meal of soup and “maito” (fish wrapped in various plant leaves and cooked on the open fire). We enjoyed a meal together around the fire, sharing a common “plate” of food served on a large banana leaf. Everyone there was a member of Letitia’s family except me, and I felt privileged to be treated as one of their own.
Not long after that, Letitia’s youngest sister, Veronica (21) and her mother came to visit us at the house. Veronica has a two-week old baby girl and has been abandoned by the baby’s father, who wants nothing to do with either her or the baby. Shyly, they asked if I would be the yet-to-be-named baby’s godmother. How does one refuse? I was touched by the request, yet hesitant given that it will likely be a long time before I return, if ever! But Veronica seemed so scared and vulnerable, and the baby so unfairly abandoned, I accepted – on the condition that Veronica pledge to finish her schooling as soon as she could.
On our last day, we participated in the women’s minga in the village. A group of 34 women have founded a formal women’s association whose Kichua name means “Valiant Woman”. They have built a large hut with the aim of creating a space where the women can pool their resources, work together, and expose their work for the tourists they hope to attract to the village (as a complement to the Orchid Garden). The men worked on the building, the women worked on the grounds, and Alain and I joined the team responsible for garbage picking. We also decided to contribute financially to their project, by giving them the 250$ they needed to bring electricity to their workshop.
This minga was a particularly joyful one, as the women had supplied pails of chicha for the workers. With the alcohol in the chicha, and the first bit of sun anyone had seen in weeks, they were hilarious! Laughing, teasing, chatting… and they ended the day by throwing a few chickens into a huge pot to make soup for everyone – and Liliana, a reputed prankster, took the opportunity to cover Melida, the president of the women’s association, in chicken poo she collected when the poor birds were being plucked and quartered!
It always seems as though the last day is the best… After the minga, we were invited to a farewell dinner hosted by Letitia’s other sister Teresa, her husband Tito and their six children. With Esteban’s family and ours, it made for a happy feast! They showered us with gifts of handmade jewelry and heartfelt thanks, and it was with a very sad heart that we bid them goodbye. And while this may have been slightly more trying for us as a family, it was undoubtedly the “real thing”: we wanted to see, feel, share the lives of those less fortunate then us and were given a beautiful opportunity to do just that with an entire village of beautiful people who took us into their lives and homes, with love, laughter and many life lessons.