Who Am I?

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Last week in La Bib, I helped solve a mystery for the volunteers, and perhaps halted an identity crisis for this young man.

Who am I???...Christian!!!

I first met this little guy when he approached me in the children’s library with a huge grin and a counting book on ladybugs. I was immediately enamored with his raspy voice and his silliness. Every few sentences, he stopped me reading to point at something on the page. He started to tell me something in Spanish but soon dissolved into a fit of joyful giggles. I have no idea what he said, but just his laughter cracked me up, and we barely finished the book.

I started hanging out with him a lot in La Bib. He’s the type of child who lets out long, shrill sounds of glee– and I am the type of adult who does the same. We read books together and I tried, with the other kids, to teach him how to play Uno, a hilarious farce that annoyed the other kids but only made me love the little guy more for his joyful disregard for rules. “That guy is like, my new best friend,” I told the other volunteers. Who? They’d ask. “Uhhh… well… I don’t know his name…”

When a kid enters La Bib, they have to grab their name tag from a hook by the door and pin it to their shirt. Most kids do okay at this; once in a while, someone fails to recognize his or her name, and we have to get it for them. The little guy never came to us with such a problem, oh no. Unable to read his name, he simply plucked whichever one he saw first and wore it as his own. That’s how it came to be that for the first day I knew him, I called him David.

The following week, I was reading to a little boy named Carlos when I noticed how much he resembled David. He had shorter hair, but the resemblance was uncanny. “Do you have a brother?” I asked. He told me he had like, seven or eight of them, but they were all older. “When did you get your hair cut?” This weekend, he said. “Hmm,” I said. I went on reading, until little “Carlos” stopped for an all-too-familiar giggle fit.

¨What´s your name?¨ I asked, slowly closing the book and looking suspiciously at the little guy. ¨What´s your real name?¨ He sunk down into the seat, laughing hysterically. Then he got up and ran away to play a game of Sorry!, undoubtedly by his own rules.

The next day, I stopped my young friend, who today was under the guise of Alex R., and told him I needed to make him his own nametag, with his own name. He smiled and let out a big sigh, his shoulders sagging in defeat. ¨So what´s your name?¨ I asked. He made a raspy little mouse sound that I couldn´t understand. ¨What was that?¨ I asked again. ¨CHRISTIAN!¨ he roared. Christian! His true name (I think)! I drew his name in big happy block letters and asked him what his favorite thing in the world is. ¨Perritos!¨ he cried, so I drew little dogs next to his name. We colored it in together, making sure that it would stand out. I told him that even if some days he can´t remember how to read his name, he can remember the little dogs, and know that this tag is his.

The next day, I was walking around La Bib when I saw Christian sitting with his back to me. I tapped him on the shoulder, spun him around, and there it was– HIS name! I squealed in delight (something I thought he could appreciate) and congratulated him for remembering. He rolled his eyes like, ¨Come on, it´s not THAT big of a deal!¨ and then he burst into that raspy laugh I love so much.

Since coming to Ecuador, I feel like I´ve asked myself the question a lot: ¨Who am I?¨ The answer, like the weather in Baños, changes from minute to minute. This is something I talk about often with Pete, another volunteer whose wife, Dalene, returned early to Canada and is adjusting to life in the homeland after almost a year away. There is, I have to say, precious little that I miss about life in the United States. I don´t miss the traffic, the hectic schedules, or laboring in Protestant work conditions where ¨If ya got time to lean, ya got time to clean¨– here, people work hard, too, much harder than people in the U.S. and it´s alright to sit down at work if you´ve got nothing to do. I don´t miss being bombarded with advertisements everywhere I look, or inane conversations about TV shows that I don´t watch, or passing ten different fast food restaurants on my way to school, not to mention the fast food chains within my campus. I don´t miss ¨la hora gringa¨– that is, showing up right on the dot, as opposed to Ecuadorian time, a clock that runs on circumstance rather than obligation. I don´t miss driving to the grocery store and lamenting the fresh fruits and veggies that I can´t buy because they´re too expensive– here, I walk to the market to get fresh produce for the week and I rarely walk out of there spending more than three bucks.

I miss a few things, like fast internet and my friends. I miss almond milk and sushi. I miss my dog. I miss easy access to books in English. I miss… uhh… that´s about it.

Yes, it is challenging to live in a place where no one is speaking your language and where half the time I communicate in grunts and facial expressions. I´ve been the butt of many a Spanish joke that I didn´t understand. Sometimes, my friendly ¨Buenos Dias¨ goes unreturned. But for the most part, I feel at home here, and that is one thing that I think has changed in me the most: my adaptability has increased tenfold.

Back home, I get frustrated over the littlest things– let´s say, for instance, if my can opener stopped working. Back home, I´d probably release a storm of cuss words before throwing the thing across the room and giving up. Here, I grab a knife and calmly stab the top of the can until the hole is big enough for my lentil soup to trickle through. Plans change here, often and without warning. I´m working on my ability to ¨go with the flow,¨ relinquishing the control I feel is so necessary for life in the U.S. and letting things happen as they may.

I also expected a lot more homesickness– I´ve left Tallahassee for long weekends and felt homesick. I expected to be haunting Skype, waiting for a friendly face to log on so I wouldn´t feel so alone. That never happened. I´ve been too busy, too happy, to feel homesick. Like I said, this has started to feel like home. There was one night when I was out with the fellow volunteers and some other friends of ours, a group of girls who volunteer at an organic farm in Baños. Everyone was talking, laughing, rehashing inside jokes and I thought, with no small amount of wonder: ¨These are my friends.¨

BFF

It´s amazing how an experience like this one can unite people from unlikely backgrounds. These people aren´t just some folks I was thrown into a program with, forced to make strained small talk with over drinks. They are people I look forward to spending time with, people I can talk to openly and honestly, people who can make me laugh, people who I admire. I never feel lonely.

I´ve always admired people like my fellow volunteer Amy, a Brit who one day bought a one-way ticket to Spain, unable to speak Spanish and uncertain as to whether she´d be able to land a job teaching English. A few days later, she did, and now she is not only a great Spanish speaker, but a great English teacher as well. I´ve admired those people but I always thought, I could never do that. I´d be lonely. I wouldn´t make friends. I need my books around me, I need to be comfortable, I need to have enough grasp of the local language to make people laugh. None of that is true for me anymore. I now feel that I can finally make my dream of teaching English overseas come true. I knew I would love teaching English– and I do. I know that one day I will become a good teacher, and that´s what makes all the blank stares and days when I end class feeling like a failure bearable. I´m going to take the TEFL certification at Florida State University this fall, and by this time next year, I hope to be on my way to Turkey with a job all set. I can say that now without the fear that I´ll get scared and chicken out. All the comfort in the world can´t replace the excitement of an unexplored street, a long chat with a new friend, or moments of profund confusion that dissolve into laughter.

Tiny wonders are tucked into every day here; I simply pull them out, like loose threads from a shirt. Yesterday, walking back from a spectacular waterfall, down a little road lined with modest homes, Pete and I stopped in our tracks as the sound of a synthesizer came straining from a straw hut. ¨Is that– is that Devo?¨ Pete asked, incredulous. ¨Yes, it is,¨ I said, dazed. ¨It´s ´Time Out for Fun.´¨ A fitting anthem, I think, for life in Baños, and a philosophy I hope to carry back with me into my often stressful, serious life back home. Take a little time for some fun, y´all.

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We walked back, glancing behind us every few steps at the spectacular view of Mama Tungurahua that the clear and sunny day afforded us. We reminisced about how, just a little over a month ago, we were afraid that she would blow up. I almost left Baños because of my fear. So many terrors– thundering terrors, terrors that shake your windows and keep you up at night– you can rest assured, will never erupt. I am slowly learning how to battle my fears and live for the beautiful day in front of me. I think it works like this: if you can live through your terror, one sunny day in the future, long after the terror has passed, you get to look back over your shoulder at it and say, breathless,

¨Isn´t it beautiful

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P.S.
The story with Christian isn´t over. Yesterday he told me, with regret, that he´d lost his name tag. Someone made him a new one, his name written plainly in black marker. There´s no way he´ll remember it. I suspect he´ll be someone else today. I wonder who he´ll be?

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Written by Sam Kelly

July 20, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Baños, a list of lists

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Things I Have Seen While Looking Out My Window:

– About 50 or so police officers, dressed in camouflage, shouting chants as they run down my street. The sound of their combat boots sounds like a herd of wild bison, roaming o´er the plains. It´s a pretty cool display, but I wish they´d wait until after I´ve woken up to do it.

– A man walking three goats on leashes in the misty morning. And a crowd of people, gathered around him, filling their bottles wih goat´s milk straight from the tap.

– Kids from the Biblioteca, who find me leaning on the sill, people-watching, and shout: ¨SAM! SAM!¨ with frantic waves and enormous grins.

– The sun coming up between two green mountains.

Topics Covered in Tutoring Sessions With Daniel, a 23-year-old Baneño:

– Mullets. In Spanish, he says, they´re called ¨partida de nalga¨ which means ¨part of the ass.¨ A good five minutes were devoted to discussing and drawing on the board various types of mullets.

– Punk vs. Salsa: for some reason, before our lesson began on Wednesday, Daniel went to the board and wrote that. Inquiring minds want to know, I guess. I voted punk. He was not pleased.

– Various bad words that I can´t repeat here, in case children are reading.

– How to dance salsa. When I told him I can´t dance salsa, he whipped out his phone and a tinny song began to play. He proceeded to demonstrate the ¨easy steps¨ of salsa which to me happened so fast that all I saw was a mocking blur.

My Favorite New Words in Spanish:

Chevere. Ecuadorian slang for ´cool.´

Vacan. More Ecuadorian slang for ´cool.´ The effect is amplified, usually to comedic effect, when you say vacansisimo.

Muy rico. Rich, usually applied to food. ¨Mmmm! This chocolate is muy rico!¨ I learned the hard way that you have to be careful with it, though. If you stretch out the muy- ¡mmmmmuuuuuyyyyyy rico! it´s kind of like a sexual innuendo, and people start to whisper about you.

Mitimiti. It´s like half & half.

La espera me mata. The wait will kill me!

Mande. People use that here for ¨What?¨ but it literally is a command that means ¨send¨- like ¨Send it again?¨ I always imagine the sound of a fax machine when I hear people use it.

Claro. It´s not new to me, but it´s still my favorite phrase in Spanish. It means ¨clearly¨ and you can use it many different ways. It could be sarcastic/rude: ¨Do you want me to sweep the floor?¨ ¨¡Claro!¨ or sweet: ¨Do you think I´m pretty?¨ ¨¡Claro!¨ or just simply to settled a matter: ¨Does this cost two dollars?¨ ¨Claro.¨ You can also make a lot of jokes just by shouting it out. I just absolutely love it.

Things That Suprised Me About the Children in Baños:

– They´re respectful. They always called me ¨Usted,¨ the polite form of ¨you¨ and at the end of a lesson, they actually thank you for teaching them.

– They´re independent. I saw a kid who couldn´t have been older than three walking back from a corner store, alone, with a little kid-size yogurt at a time of night when most American toddlers have been in bed for hours. And on that same note…

– You can throw ¨child safety¨ out the window. You can throw it out a broken window, three stories above a busy street, like the one I saw two little kids leaning out of to take in the cold night air. And they weren´t wearing hats. You can also let ¨child safety¨ stand up in the back of a pickup truck and send it careening over bumpy mountain roads that I´m not certain even have posted speed limits. You can take ¨child safety¨ and let it play in the street, because kids here, they are smart. They know when a car is coming and they know to get out of the way.

– They´re affectionate. In the United States, while working with children, so much as a pat on a kid´s back could put you in jail. Here, it´s not uncommon for a ten-year-old child to lock his or her arms around your waist and stay there, Siamese-twin style, for five minutes. They´ll play with your hair, they always kiss you on the cheek to say goodbye, and they like to hold hands just about any old time. This tradition of warmth and affection continues into adulthood: it´s not uncommon to see what would be, in the U.S., a sulky teenager prone to screaming ¨I hate you, Mom!¨ walking arm in arm with his or her parents, heads nestled together. Grown men and women walk down the street arm in arm with their friends. That´s another thing I see a lot of, looking out my window: two grown men, walking arm in arm down the sidewalk, smiling. And it´s beautiful.

Written by Sam Kelly

July 2, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Something from nothing

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On one of my first days here, Jody, the director of Arte del Mundo, sat me down in her office and asked what I hoped to gain from my time as a volunteer.

¨Well,¨ I said, ¨Put most simply, I want to see how an arts non-proftit works.¨

¨Then the first thing you should know,¨ Jody replied, ¨is that you don´t need money. Don´t ever let anyone tell you that you need money. Two years ago, this building was completely empty.¨ She gestured at our building, which now houses a 2,000 volume library and plays host every afternoon to thirty or so happy children, classrooms for English lessons, and a volunteer quarters that I am happy to call home. ¨We built all of this, and we had no money.¨ She laughed. ¨We still don´t!¨

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After working at FAM for three weeks, I can see that Jody is right. The non-profit world is quite different here than what I expected. My only prior experience was my work at a fancy shmancy arts non-profit in Miami. In that circle I saw a world where all the town´s upper crust came to throw money around and in exchange, see their names in gold letters on gallery and museum walls. I had been prepared to study the art and science of grant writing, a wearisome task that I´ve seen friends and former colleagues pull their hair out over. There´s none of that here. In an organization where one of the founding beliefs is, ¨To be human is to be imaginative and creative,¨ it only seems fitting that funding is born of creative ideas rather than red tape. I love it. It´s so DIY. It´s so… punk!

We have a whole room of recyclables. I´ll have to take a photo of it– it´s incredible. Anything that to most people is trash, goes into the recycling room. In the hands of our children and volunteers, that trash is turned into fun afternoons, and then, into art. For instance, this little guy. Another volunteer, Pete, made them with all the kids one day. They loved it!

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I´ve long thought that what I´d like to ultimately do– my big move– is start a non-profit. I was born into a family of hardworking, self-employed folk and so I have an entrepreneurial spirit. I quickly learned, while self-employed in the real estate industry at the age of twenty, that I lack the ¨money grubbing spirit¨ that one needs to succeed. Or, I should say, to succeed in the traditional, American-dream sense.

A few days ago, I went hiking with Karl and Kim, other volunteers, and we got talking about the movie Network. The discussion concluded with me yelling that famous line from the side of a mountain, ¨I´m as mad as hell, and I´m not going to take it anymore!¨ I´ve met so many people here who I can imagine shouting that phrase from the windows of the suburban homes just before leaving their old lives behind.

The people I´ve talked to all describe a transformative moment when they realized with full clarity that they wanted more out of life than nice cars and big TVs. I met a former firefighter who spent the last three years out of his twelve year career working in Iraq for the United States military. He´d come to Ecuador to climb volcanoes. ¨There´s something about them,¨ he said, leaning close and speaking softly. ¨When I´m near volcanoes, I just feel different. Like nothing else on this Earth has ever made me feel.¨ When he returns to the U.S., he´s going to study for his master´s in Geology. Specializing, of course, in volcanology.

Many of my fellow volunteers, after many years spent on careers, suddenly decided they´d had enough. They gave away or sold whatever they had left. One simply handed the keys to his Mercedes to a friend, trading the car for a bicycle on which he spanned the entire United States. Bobby and Jody, the couple who helped found FAM, have been heading south from Mexico for twenty years, volunteering along the way. ¨We´re the world´s slowest travelers,¨ Jody says.

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I feel incredibly blessed to have had the realization relatively early in life that, to quote Fight Club: ¨You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.¨ I feel even more blessed to have the support of my university as I explore what it really means to spend your life doing what you want to do, rather than what you feel you have to.

So far, the most exciting part of my work has been teaching English to adults. I knew I liked ESOL tutoring before, but damn. I really like it now. My class is intermediate, five students give or take, all of whom are there because they really want to learn. They ask difficult questions. They challenge idiomatic phrases. They shake their heads, their faces clouded with confusion. And then, together, we come to understanding, the clouds break, and their faces light up. Or so it seems to me. I can´t say for sure that they´re learning, because I feel so new and inexperienced at this. But as time passes and they warm up to me, I hear their voices more and more often. I see them smile. And then I´m a little like that firefighter with his volcanoes– feeling something unlike anything else. I´ll never forget when Kyunghwa, a Korean woman who I tutored in English back in Tallahassee, told me after our six months together that her professor had commented on her improved English. I was surprised. Kyunghwa came to me almost fluent– she taught English to high schoolers back in Korea– so I really thought, all along, and guiltily, that my tutoring sessions with Kyunghwa were more like just hanging out with a friend. But after that compliment, she thanked me! I know I didn´t do much. The words were there, but having someone to use them on helped improve her confidence and comfort in speaking up.

I feel certain now that my path, for at least the next few years, is one of teaching English overseas. I´ve never been able to relax, so sipping margaritas on the beach never appealed to me as a traveler. I like coming to see the place I´m in as home, and that can only come with time. It doesn´t hurt to be affiliated with an awesome organization, and it really doesn´t hurt to be in a small town where the people go out of their way to make you feel a part of their world. I have felt so welcome in Baños that I feel sure I can become at ease in another part of the world. But for now, it´s true: Baños feels, to me, just like home.

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And while we´re on the subject of home, can I show you some photos of my FAMily?

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That´s Carlos on the right and I think that´s Oliver on the left. I can´t be sure, because would you believe it, there are TWO of those adorable faces around the Biblioteca? That´s right, Oliver´s a twin. And yes, the saying ¨double trouble¨ does apply!

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That´s Veronica, Karl, and Bibi, my surrogate dog for the summer. Veronica is one of the sweetest and friendliest kids at the Bib. Karl is our volunteer coordinator, but he also takes us on rad hikes and keeps me company at the bar. He´s also provided an outlet for my sometimes crude sense of humor, a role I greatly appreciate. As you can see, Bibi´s quite cuddly and good-natured. When Bobby & Jody go away for the weekend, I have the pleasure of being Bibi´s guardian. Having a dog around has really contributed to that sense of home. I´m just not myself without a dog around.

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That´s Alfonso, me, Dalene and Pete. Dalene has left for home but her husband, Pete, will be here until August. Alfonso is a Baneño and friend of Karl´s. We went to his house to watch the dismal USA vs. England match a few weeks ago, and to take in the view of Baños from his roof!

Stalin at work

That´s Stalin. He´s the sweetest kid. Every day he greets me with a smile and ¨¡Hola Sam!¨ and when he leaves, it´s a hug and a kiss on the cheek and a ¨¡Chao, hasta mañana!¨

Alex

That´s Alex, one of the twins. Yeah, he looks sweet and angelic in that picture.

But this one´s much more true to his silly, mischievious nature.

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The passenger with the huge smile is Yesi, our librarian and guru to the children. She´s from Baños and can manage a room full of rowdy kids like none other. I´ve seen thirty children go, at her command, from running around the library putting each other in headlocks to sprawled all over the floor, quietly reading to one another. The ¨horse¨ is Cecilia, a lady from Spain who has the prettiest, but difficult to understand, accent. She led a Friday afternoon of dancing and games that I think was as much fun for the volunteers as it was for the kids.

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That´s Karl again and Kim, our newest volunteer. On her second day here, Karl took us to a place called the Tree House. The warden of Volcan Tungurahua built it. It´s a two hour hike from our house and features such glories as a swing that takes you over the valley and spectacular views of the volcano and the surrounding mountains. Like so:

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As Kim and I stood looking out over the valley, I turned to her and said something I tend to say often, at times of overwhelming wonder. Like I´m trying to convince myself, still.

¨We live here!¨ I said, and we smiled.

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I live here.
I live here.
I live here.

How will I ever leave?!

Written by Sam Kelly

June 21, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Baby´s First Hike

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¨But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.¨
-Ernest Hemingway

You may have heard this before, but for those who don´t know about my homeland, south Florida, I´ll say this: it´s flat. It sits at sea level, with nary a variance in the topography, unless you count the massive landfills. Florida is FLAT. Moreover, most of that flatness is paved. Highways, shopping centers, theme parks- we´ve made it as easy as possible to drive over the endless flatness, and as unappealing as possible to walk through it.

That´s not to say that Florida has a shortage of natural beauty. We have the Everglades, a river of grass unlike anything else in the world. I´ve walked around a bit in it- mostly, over the docks that lead to airboats- but I did try, once, on an eighth grade field trip, to hike in the Everglades. A few steps into the knee-high swamp, my friend and I climbed a tiny tree and clung to it, crying, until our teachers finally let us return to the comfort of our air-conditioned bus, where we felt much more at home. Still, I´ve always harbored a belief that deep inside this pathetic crybaby is someone born to climb mountains.

Volcan Cotopaxi

Or, this being Ecuador, volcanoes. That one is Cotopaxi, as seen from the front yard of my hostel, Secret Garden Cotopaxi. I arrived at The Secret Garden on Friday, May 28th, with the intention of making it to the glacier line of Cotopaxi on Sunday. What would I do Saturday, you ask? Climb another volcano, of course, to acclimatize and prepare for Cotopaxi.

Meet Señor Pasochoa:

The road to Pasochoa

That craggedy, mist-shrouded heap of rocks was formed about a hundred thousand years ago when the volcano exploded, showering the surrounding regions with ash and lava that made a fertile ground for the lush surrounding forest. Although Pasochoa stands higher than any European mountain, at 4200 meters, I didn´t think twice about attempting to summit it on my first real hike. After all, I´ve never climbed a European mountain, and meters are meaningless to me. From a distance, Pasochoa looked only slightly higher than our grandest landfills.

The hike begins...

The five of us- Jessica, Jan, Becky, and I, lead by Abraham a.k.a. The Young Magellan- set off from the hostel around 8:30 in the morning, o´er green fields, to the backdrop of a cool, gorgeous and relatively cloudless day.

We slipped into a misty forest, and began walking alongside a river. This was the point when I had to explain to my disbelieving self, ¨No, you are not on ride at Disneyworld. This is real. This is what they base those rides off of. This was here first.¨ I still can´t really believe it. Moss-covered branches! Cascading mountain streams! Rocks of every size, shape, and color- none of them made of flaking styrofoam!

Is this my life?

See how happy this made me? I look absolutely crazed with excitement. We all look pretty happy, standing at waterfall just before we climb up it. Remember this photo, because we won´t look so happy on the way back down, covered in mud in the gloomy gloaming. But for now: HAPPY! ECSTATIC!

The gang

For a first hike, scaling a slippery rock wall and climbing a waterfall like a ladder should have daunted me. Instead, in that old adage from the great advertiser Nike, I ¨just did it.¨ I was pretty proud of myself. I was hiking!!! Just to reiterate:

Ha! How fitting that I´m wearing a Mickey Mouse tee!

We made it through the forest and came out onto a steep path leading us to some fields where we saw spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. I watched Cotopaxi with a smug smile, thinking: This mountain-climbing business is a piece of cake. See you tomorrow, sucka.

As we started up the ridges of Pasochoa, I could feel the air thin and my energy weaken. The rest of the gang, experienced hikers all, carried on at what seemed to me like warp speed as I struggled to muster enough strength to place one foot in front of the other. The dogs from the hostel had come along, and were running circles around us- up the mountain, down the mountain, startling a probably endangered bird from his roost in the tall grass. Struggling to breathe, I sat down in the grass and tried to calm myself with the view.

My sister has a life philosophy (with a matching tattoo) called ¨Reel It In.¨ Basically you can keep the future at a distance, imagining what it will be like as you walk down a sometimes treacherous path towards it, or you can cast your line way out, hook that future you want, and reel it in.

I think that hiking is a tangible and visceral way of practicing the art of ¨reeling it in.¨ The first time I went to Ecuador, in 2008, I was blown away by the mountains we passed on our drive from Quito to the Amazon. I spent most of the car ride with my face pressed to the window, barely suppressing an urge to bolt out into the open and run up those mountains to stand beneath the waterfalls I could see trickling down. This time, I vowed, I will GET THERE. I will be inside those places. I will make them real.

I soon realized that running up the sides of a 4000+ meter mountain is physically impossible for someone like me. Did I mention I´ve spent my whole life at sea level? Despite the rising panic at my inability to breathe, and feeling like a jerk for slowing everyone down, I got through the brief moment where I considered quitting and decided that I´d cast my line this far. I could feel my hook scraping the summit of Pasochoa. And by Zeus, I was going to reel that future in!

I DID IT!

I DID IT! I summitted my first ever mountain, and I was suddenly filled with so much energy I thought I might do a backflip. Instead, I followed Basil´s lead, and rested a bit as I took in the surreal plant life and otherworldly mist.

Basil at rest on the summit of Pasochoa

A word about Basil: if I was Santiago, engaged in my most epic struggle yet, then Basil was The Boy, not always present, but always in the back of my mind, bringing me strength. When I was panicking, Basil was at my side, or actually, climbing onto my lap, offering me the scraps of his endless energy. Please Basil, I said silently, my head buried in his fur. Please give me some of your energy. And he did.

Summit of Pasochoa

Up there, things were fantastically vivid. The future was even more glorious than I had imagined!

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And then the clouds cleared, and we could see all that was below.

Below

The descent story is not so pretty, but now that I´m remembering how wonderful it was to reach the summit, I feel less like telling that disgraceful tale. Basically, Young Magellan had only been on the hike once before, and we got lost. It was a dizzying and maddening hour of tracing and retracing our steps, making a zigzag over the mountain that exhausted me physically and mentally. I was tired, I was angry, I was hungry, and I didn´t trust our guide, the poor thing.

Our misstep did lead us, however, to a band of wild horses.

WILD horses: Stand-off!

WILD horses

WILD horses

The local legend has it that those horses are so wild, they cannot be tamed. See that road the horses are standing on? That´s the road we were supposed to stroll leisurely down, back to the hostel. But Magellan didn´t know which way we were supposed to go. So, when he told us we would be going back the way we came- down waterfalls, down steep rocky cliffs, all under the threat of a thunderstorm- I actually thought that taming one of the horses and riding it back to the hostel sounded easier.

What followed was a slow and arduous descent during which I was mostly crying and hyperventillating. I kept moving, but just barely. Magellan, trying valiantly to calm me and show me the way, slipped from a rock wall and landed neck-deep in the river below, only narrowly avoiding jagged rocks. It was a horrible time for all. We had now missed lunch and afternoon snack, being about four hours overdue at the hostel. We knew the others would be worrying, and rightfully so, I thought. It was getting dark and every path we took through the forest seemed to end in an impassable gorge. We decided to wade through the river, which was freezing of course. Man, it was terrible.

When we finally reached the clearing, we all shouted in victory and our spirits lifted immediately. We stumbled out onto a hill, and we could see the valley below, where our hostel was.

What we saw then was magnificent, so fleeting that I didn´t have the chance to take a photo, and almost impossible to describe. We´d reached the valley at the last possible moment of sunset. On the fields, soft golden pools of light fell in patches. It didn´t look like light falling on fields, however. It looked like the curtains on windows in the ground had parted. It´s sort of how I picture the windows of English homes as seen by Dickensian street urchins, watching from the darkened street, awed by the warm glow of a happy family milling about in the firelight. In the most primitive, the most basic, and the most moving sense, the word for what I saw for those few precious seconds in the burning fields must be: home.

And there we were, greeted in the driveway by the owner of the hostel and a volunteer, who nodded serenely, accepting our continued existence. We sat by the fire and warmed our aching bodies as everyone asked about the trek. I spoke openly and apologetically of my cowardice and near-defeat on my first hike. And someone asked, ¨So, do you think you´ll ever go hiking again?¨

The answer is: HELL YES! I didn´t make it to Cotopaxi (see you later, sucka) but I see now what the hype is about. I saw that mountain, macro focus, and I brought it into micro focus. I reeled it in. And now, if you will, I´m hooked.

Written by Sam Kelly

June 9, 2010 at 1:45 pm

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Volcano-Watching

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…Have you heard of it? Neither had I, until I came to Baños. I thought it was a sport reserved solely for volcanists. Anyone else, I figured, would want a lava-spewing crater out of sight and thus, out of mind. Oh, how wrong I was.

Partybus to the volcano

That´s a chiva, or as I like to call it, the party bus. Anytime one passes La Bib, we can hear it blasting reggaeton or salsa, and I break into a little dance.

Karl, Rob, and I were talking yesterday about the distinction that people make between being a tourist and being a traveler. ¨I´m not a tourist!¨ is a frequent phrase among backpackers. Karl suggested that we eradicate the word tourist altogether, and call everyone travelers- but denote their intensity with varying levels, like in whitewater rafting. ¨I´m a level four traveler,¨ you might say. Certain things can bump you back a level.

So when I rode the chiva to the top of the mountain to see the volcano, I knew it would set me back at least a level or two in my traveler rating. Riding through the mist, on top of the bus, we had to duck to avoid tree branches and powerlines. The colored lights lit the mist blue and green, making the ride feel, to this Floridian, just like an attraction at Disneyworld.

When we arrived at the top, the mist was thick but the canelazado- a delicious sugarcane drink- was hot. It comforted me to know that lava spewing from Tunguruhua is such a frequent occurrence that a cafe exists solely to serve those who come to watch it. We stared into the blackness, hoping the clouds would break and leave us with a perfect view of glittering lava.

And then, through the mist- what´s that light? Could it be Mama Tungurahua, finally showing her face? We all grabbed our cameras and started clicking away.

Is that the volcano????

Then I turned on the flash.

No... Just some Brit´s cigarette.

…And it was just British guy, holding up his cigarette, trying his best to give us the fake pictures of Tungurahua that could dazzle our friends, possibly bumping us up to level four travelers.

You´re lucky I´m an honest gal. Can I get some points for that?

Written by Sam Kelly

June 5, 2010 at 8:20 pm

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The excitement might kill me

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¨Was that the thunder that I heard?¨ -Bob Dylan

Mama Tungurahua, in 1999.  Image from Wikipedia.

Throughout history, in times of confusion, humankind has turned to Bob Dylan to pose the questions we cannot put into words ourselves. WAS that the thunder I heard, booming across Baños, rattling the windows and causing nervous glances to pass between people on the street? Or was it Mama Tungurahua, our friendly local volcano, who has been active now for a week?

I don´t need Dylan to find out the answer. It´s on every radio and on every pair of lips: volcán, volcán. Some days it´s every few minutes, and some days, every few hours, but the roar is unmistakable: that´s not thunder we hear, but the rujio- the roar- of Tungurahua, spewing ash and lava.

I started this post around noon today, while eating delicious Ecuadorian bonbons and waiting for the sirens to sound, announcing the scheduled practice evacuation. The people here call it the Simulacra and they are surprisingly calm about it. The phrase I keep hearing is ¨no pasa nada¨- we´ve lived here with the volcano active for ten years now, and nothing happened.

Except, something did happen. In October 1999, the people of Baños and the villages surrounding Tungurahua were forced by the military to evacuate. The people of Baños were kept away from their homes for three months. From talking to other volunteers and people who lived here at that time, life for those months was grim. Evacuated to school buildings, people idled their days away in empty rooms without beds to sleep on. I don´t know what the food and water situation was, but one can imagine that there were no six-course meals.

¨They killed our chickens and cooked in our homes,¨ a Baños resident told Tobin & Whiteford in 2002. Indeed, the fear that police and soldiers were looting their homes back in Baños was not unfounded, and in 2000 a Chilean TV station broadcast the proof. The evacuees, en masse and armed with shovels, dug through police blockades and reclaimed their town.

Today, people are reluctant to leave, even in the face of a mandatory evacuation. It´s being said that the government is, therefore, reluctant to announce one. Given the history, it´s easy to understand why. However, there is a lot of misinformation being spread and the reasons are, naturally, political and economical. On my way to the internet cafe this morning I passed a mural that declared ¨Tourism is our strength.¨ Every other storefront in Baños offers something to the extranjeros- strangers- who drive the local economy: shops selling handicrafts, tour offices with whitewater rafts suspended from their ceilings, hostels, kitschy restaurants with menus in English. Everywhere I go, people ask me what they´re saying about Baños in other towns. Are they telling the tourists not to come? Why are there no tourists, and if they don´t come, how will we pay our bills this month?

Tourism is our strength.

Midway through this post, around 12:30 pm, the sirens went off. People in the cafe calmly packed up their belongings, paid their bills, and hit the streets. Outside, shops were already shuttered and people were walking, a little wearily, down the evacuation route. I ran into Oscar, one of my local friends, and we walked the route together until I got near La Bib (that´s what we call the Biblioteca- where I work), and I turned to leave the route. ¨Why aren´t you going?¨ he asked, confused. See, only locals were required to take part in the evacuation. Tourists were off the hook. As I said, people are talking a lot about the difficulty of separating precaution from politics.

Simulacravacuation

Back at La Bib, I found out that another volunteer, Jenny, had left for good. The local woman who was renting Jenny a room in her home assured her that these drills happen all the time, at least two or three times a year. Jenny asked someone at La Bib when the last simulacra was. ¨Oh, two, maybe two and half years ago,¨ she said. The stress of not knowing what´s really going on is getting to all of us. Another volunteer is thinking of leaving a week early. ¨I hate not knowing what´s really happening,¨ I told Oscar a few minutes ago, when I ran into him again. He laughed. ¨The authorities don´t even know!¨

Simulacravacuation

Even though I knew that the evacuation was only a drill, I couldn´t help feeling a little sick to my stomach when I heard the sirens, which sound like our U.S. ambulances, but more mournful. I reeled a little on the sidewalk, unsure of which way to go, despite having studied the evacuation map since the second I arrived in Baños. If there really is need for an evacuation, it´s pretty clear that it will be a mess. At La Bib we are waiting with fingers crossed that in a few days this will, as Karl (the volunteer coordinator) put it, all blow over. ¨Are those the words you want to use, Karl?¨ I said, with a nervous chuckle. So let me just say that we are hoping that we´ll we able to say soon, ¨No pasa nada.¨ Because I really, really, REALLY love Baños and I don´t want to leave. Let me tell you a little about why.

waterfall you can see from our window

First of all, it´s GORGEOUS here. That waterfall is visible from the house I live in, right above the Bib. The town of Baños is surrounded on all sides by nearly vertical walls of rock so high that for the first few days, I couldn´t look down a street without getting dizzy. The walls are green and lush with, oh, just the occasional waterfall cascading down or even, incredibly, horses grazing on narrow ledges. The weather is cool and cloudy, with bursts of sunshine. I have definitely achieved my dream of experiencing year-round sweater weather. I can´t say I miss the heat, bugs, or humidity of my native Florida summers one bit.

wall of mountain

Second, the people here are amazing. I already have friends. I´ve sat on stoops, chatting with locals. A few days ago Carlos, the security guard at the supermarket, took me on a tour of the aisles, explaining the names of things and telling me which foods are the most delicious. Speaking of delicious foods, they abound and they are CHEAP. I found my favorite store already, where the most incredible Ecuadorian truffles can be bought for 25 cents (American… they are on the U.S. dollar here), fresh ground peanut butter for a dollar, and a block of fancy local cheese for $1.25. Since it´s such a small town, I can walk every day to buy fresh French bread at an amazing bakery called Rico Pan. They even have an entire brand devoted to people with such discerning tastes as mine:

I´m a SNOB... are you?

I´ve been surprised, pleasantly, by small-town living. I think that´s been the biggest culture shock for me. I´ve learned that I have to figure at least a half hour of chatting into my trip any time I leave the house. Everyone here wants to know where I´m from, wants to know what I´m doing in Baños, and wants to help me learn Spanish. Their faces light up when I point to something, ask the word, and say sheepishly in Spanish, ¨I´m trying to learn.¨ Last night, while I waited for my dinner, the shopkeeper sent her little girl over to my table with a Spanish picture dictionary so she could teach me a few words. Everyone here knows about La Bib, so when I tell them I´m working there for two months, they get these huge smiles on their faces. It´s no wonder. La Bib, it turns out, is amazing in every way I hoped it would be, and more.

Fundacion Arte Del Mundo

Every day, a few minutes before we open, tiny faces can be seen peering inside the window, waiting. When we finally open, they burst in, tugging on the volunteers´ sleeves and making their case for a game of Jenga, or Spanish Pictionary, or reading a book together. Because the kids in La Bib speak very little English, they have to help me get by in Spanish, and they are incredibly helpful. While playing Pictionary, I had to draw a word I didn´t know. A little girl reached into her backpack and handed me a Spanish/English dictionary.

Fundacion Arte Del Mundo

At Fundacion Arte del Mundo, there are three programs going on, and I´m lucky to be part of them all: the library, children´s English classes, and night classes in English for adults. There´s also the weekly Intercambios, where English and Spanish speakers gather for a guided discussion in which we each must use the others´ language. I think it helps put the students at ease to realize that, poor as their English may be, my Spanish is much, much worse.

My first day in Baños, I woke up after a sweaty night listening to the volcano to hear ¨Dust in the Wind¨ blaring out on the streets. By the end of the day, I was dancing with thirty or so happy children to a Spanish version of the BeeGees´ ¨Stayin´Alive.¨ It was oddly reassuring and for now, I am staying in Baños. I´ve been here less than a week but I already feel right at home. There is so much here that I want to accomplish at La Bib. Something in me says that Mama Tungurahua will continue to look after Baños, and so I will try to revel in the excitement.

***COMING SOON***

A recap of my first ten days in Ecuador, including such hits as:
The Time I Almost Died
Sobbin´ on a Mountainside
Hide the Volcano
Wild, Wild Horses
You Don´t Look Like an American… Congratulations!
Is That a Volcano or a British Man?

Until then… ¡¡¡CHAO!!!

Written by Sam Kelly

June 4, 2010 at 12:08 pm

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My last day in the U.S.A.

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I woke up this morning with the thought: Voy a Ecuador este día. It bodes well that I am already thinking in Spanish. It does not bode well that even in my mind, I stutter over the accent. The first thing I’ll be doing Monday morning (really, THE first thing– 8:30 a.m.) is head over to Spanish class with a professor who came highly recommended by a friend who lived and taught in Ecuador for five months. Wish me “buen suerte” or if you prefer, good luck.

How did this all get started? I can’t shake the feeling that finally, my life is starting to become the life I have envisioned since I was a little girl. I keep trying to retrace my steps, to some crucial moment in my life when I inadvertently rolled the dice that decided my fate. I walk backwards through time, looking for clues, and when I am just about to give up, I trip over a shampoo bottle.

There are a lot of things that have made me want to visit South America, dating back to childhood– a Choose Your Own Adventure book set on the Amazon River, the movie Ferngully, and stories culled all my life from South American friends and classmates. When I started working in Miami at the age of eighteen, I was exposed to cafe con leche and pastelitos; I bought homemade empanadas, still warm, from a woman who went door to door with her tote bag of treats; I learned to hug everyone I met and got used to kisses on the cheek from strangers; and I discovered that extra-strength cortaditos are not to be imbibed by one person alone, but instead are shared out in thimble-sized cups for a very good reason. In short, I fell in love with the warmth and generosity of Latin culture. When I got the chance in 2008 to go with one of my dearest friends, Mario, to visit his repatriated parents in Ecuador, I couldn’t get my passport soon enough. I was going to the place on the shampoo bottle.

When I was a little girl, I was sometimes able to con my parents into buying this shampoo for us. Some of the proceeds went to saving the rainforest, a notion I could get behind. But really, it was the bottle that drew me in. The colorful depiction of the rainforest creatures, combined with the scent of the shampoo (I imagined that the Amazon smelled exactly like it), left me imagining a vague and distant future when I would live in a clouded jungle, waking up to the sound of monkeys chattering in the trees.

Where I am going to work this summer is not in the Amazon rainforest, but it’s close. Turns out that romantic vision omitted the sticky heat and swarms of bugs, so I’ve chosen to settle instead in the Andes mountains. I’ve been to the rainforest in Ecuador, and believe me, it is glorious. There really are monkeys swinging from the trees– riding in a tiny, painted canoe with a motor strapped to the back down the Napo River (a tributary of the Amazon River), we watched them play like squirrels, and I had to pinch myself to believe I wasn’t just on a ride at Disney. Maybe I’ll get the chance to go there again this time, but if I don’t, it’s okay because I’ve already crossed that childhood dream off the list.

Now I am working on a more recent dream, one that has only recently coalesced from many smaller dreams. When I was looking for arts and literacy programs in Ecuador, I was immediately drawn to a phrase on the website of Fundacion Arte del Mundo (FAM) in Baños de Agua Santa. That phrase was: “To be human is to be imaginative and creative.” Hey, I believe that! I thought to myself. Looking at the photos of children smiling proudly, artworks held aloft, my eyes teared up and I knew it was the place for me.

I grew up with the good fortune of having parents who encouraged a love of art and literature. Our house was filled with books. Any time I was bored, all I had to do was pick one up. I never wanted for art supplies and many family outings were spent visiting art museums or art festivals. For the children of Baños, books are a luxury. Rarely does a family have books in the house and none of the primary school have a library. It’s hard for me to imagine, and it was hard for the founders of FAM to imagine, too. They started the library to give kids in Baños the chance to explore the world through reading.

Thanks to the generous support of my university, Florida State, I’ve been able to fill a suitcase with books and games to bring with me to FAM. Look at the beautiful illustrations in this one:

books

My feelings about this trip have been wildly oscillating over the past few days. The knot in my stomach keeps turning into butterflies, then back into a knot. I’ve seen most of the hometown friends that I wanted to see and have had a beautiful couple of days hanging out at the beach. Every now and then, I caught myself gazing southward down the coast, imagining the miles of ocean between me and Ecuador. It’s so close, I thought. It’s so soon. And now it’s here. I’ll be in Ecuador in time for dinner.

My sister and I on Hollywood Beach

Goodbye, Atlantic Ocean. Goodbye, Hollywood and goodbye, Florida. Goodbye to my beautiful friends, to the handsome and supportive Geoffrey, to my wonderful family, and goodbye to my noble hound, Red, who has perhaps already forgotten me. Goodbye, Estados Unidos. ¡Chao!

Written by Sam Kelly

May 22, 2010 at 9:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized