Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Carneval en Oriente

Hola queridos,

I just returned from a trip to the ciy of Sucua in the "oriente", where Pepe's parents live, and Pepe grew up. "Oriente" is the region of ecuador on the easterly side of the Andes, and is mostly "selva" or jungle. There are cities and development, but this is the part of ecuador which is in the Amazon basin. When we passed thru a tunnel from the Sierra side of the Andes to Oriente, the hillsides were covered with orchids. The landscape, the houses, the dress, the cultivation everything was different.

In oriente, it is usually hot and humid, but the climate is changing here too, and for the first time I needed a blanket at night and it was cool most of the time, because the sun wasn't out. It is " invierno" here , which means rainy season not winter, but i have never seen rains like they are having this year. And not only in oriente; in Cuenca it used to rain a bit every afternoon, but we also had lots of sun. Now it rains heavily and much much more, and very little sun.

We traveled to oriente for "Carneval", ie the days before lent. Carneval a big deal here, but not like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Mostly people spend it with family and travel around the country to see its many diverse sites. And throw water on each other! I still can't figure out why...

In oriente, we visited Puerto Morona which is just a few miles from the Peruvian border. There is a brand new asphalt highway, but there were many many "derummbes", or mudslides, because of the heavy rain. sometimes we had to wait for heavy equipment to clear the road. The road is new. Pepe's father used to work in this part of ecuador dispensing malaria pills. It took him 4 days to walk thru the jungle to Puerto Morona. it took us 2 1/2 hours. I thought about this with amazement our whole trip there.

We also took a motorized canoe down to the border with Peru along Rio Morona, a tributary of the Amazon. We disembarked, and stood on a very rough "cancha" or soccer field, half of which was in ecuador and half in peru. The war with peru ended in 2000, with ecuador ceding a lot of land in this area to Peru. We were silent and could hear a torrent of bird song. Didn't see (or eat) any monkeys or anaconda - although we heard both were on the menu.

We also visited a Shuara community near Sucua (Shuara are the native tribe in this part of Ecuador), where we visited with a family who is starting a tourism business. They have built a typical Shura house, which is round and made of bambo with a thatched roof and dirt floor - very cool and appropriate for the jungle. They couldn't have been more hospitable. Nor did they try to shrink our heads! They actually have a very complex cosmology, and this is a part of it. But, now they only shrink monkey heads. Last time I was here in Oriente for carneval in 2010, one of Ana Cecilia's "tonta" sisters-in-law wouldn't get out of the car because she was afraid they would eat her! The Shuaras have their own distinctive culture and language. and it wasn't until the 1990s that they won back their land from white hacienda landowners. if you are interested check out Wikipedia for more detail...

I have less than a month to go!!

x0x0 carolyn

Monday, February 6, 2012

Changes in Ecuador

Hola from Cuenca,

Here are some observations about changes from my 6 years of coming here:

- there is a LOT more traffic! As more and more people join the middle class, they are becoming consumers like us in the USA. I can’t be too critical, since I too have a car, but I can only bemoan this trek to consumerism. Since I first came here, I realized that in order for the third world to have a decent life, we in the USA and the developed countries must be satisfied with what we have and not crave for more and more. But now i see that if everyone in the third world wants what we have, a car or even two, a second home, and more and more stuff, what will that mean for our poor planet?

- when I first come here in 2006, it seemed like every young girl had a baby in arms or was pregnant. The good news is that I rarely if ever see this now. Not that it doesn’t exist, but that it doesn’t exist to the same extent. This can only be good news.

- When I first came, there was a continuing migration of Ecuadorians going (legally and illegally) to the US and Europe to find work – the eternal struggle to improve the prospects for the family. (Note: I never forget that my grandparents were in the same boat over 100 years ago; they left Italy for the same reasons and with more or less the same conditions as there were here in Ecuador – no opportunity.)

In 2006, the largest part of Ecuador’s GDP – after petroleum – was the remittances sent home by Ecuadorians living and working abroad. Now because of the global recession, those immigrants have no work and many are returning, with incentives provided by the Ecuadorian government. There seems to be a lot going on in the Ecuadorian economy – lots of construction, new shops (tiendas) on every block, andlots of government programs assisting the poor with housing, self-sufficiency.

Ironically, Ecuador is now a “receiving” country: migrants from Columbia's continuing civil conflict and drug wars due to drug demand from the US, from Peru where poverty is graver than here in Ecuador. But the most astounding migrants are older people from the US (jubilados as they are called here). Apparently Cuenca has been named one of the best cities to retire – mostly because it is cheap. But it is also beautiful and has a mild climate. So Cuenca is looking more like Vermont – older and white! I’ll let my prejudices show here for a minute since I find that most north Americans in Cuenca live in "ghettos" – not integrating, not learning Spanish, only hanging out with each other and complaining about Latino mores. And, like what happened in “gold towns” in Vermont, they aredriving up the cost of land and everything else. GRRRR.

But somethings haven't changed: I love seeing cows and sheep grazing in the city's round-a-bouts and on the banks of the rivers, munching the grass. The multiplying cars aside, their carbon footprint is still pretty low.

More later…

PS: i'm the world's worst photographer - mostly because I hate taking pictures. But i'll try and include some in my next post. Assuming i remember to take a camera with me...

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ecuador 2012

After a 2 year hiatus (last year i couldn't come because of my dad's illness and death) i am enjoying myself so much. i have stuff to do but the pace is quite relaxing.

i thought i was avoiding my usual grippe this year, but alas, i came down with something last week. i started antibiotics right away, and hopefully it will keep any real infection away. i feel fine, just a slight cough now. the combination of change of climate (hot and sunny in am, rainy and chilly in pm), pollution from the busses and new microbes to which i have no real immunity yet all contribute...

life with the astudillos couldn't be better. the test is always if you can pick up where you left off. after 2 years, it was as if i had been here yesterday! they truly are amigos de mi corazon. they built a new house not 5 minutes from their old house. its in a much more tranquil sector (or barrio) next to a lovely rushing river. they designed it together, and pepe was the general contractor; it really is beautiful, tasteful and simple.

I go almost every day to Casa Maria Amor, where lots of changes are afoot. they are building a new casa farther out, where they will add an agricultural component to their vocational training. the laundry and the cooking school are combined and now both go by "Mujeres con Exito", the name the women picked for the laundry. but they are both undergoing transition - the laundry with new industrial machines, and the cooking school upgrading too and moving for the time being to a new location. the new house won't be ready for 2 years. i am working with the women and the staff on a business plan, and with the women to update their training and regulations.

i went to San Cristobal yesterday for the monthly meeting of the Banco (now called Caja de Creditos y Ahorros"). there too there is transition with a new board of directors, lots of new members, and growing pains. they decided to take the opportunity of my presence to revisit their rules and regs to update them: tighten procedures, lower interest rates, promote savings as well as credit etc. but imagine with $5700 in original seed money from us, they now have almost $35,000!!! i told them yesterday that while american banks went kaput theirs grew!! they are so proud. as am i.

there is a new very progressive priest assigned to the parish - Fr. Hernan Rodes (if i call him "Father" rather than Hernan, he calls me "madre". he has initiated a lot of good things like: links with another womens group in Paute, a nearby larger community, who do workshops for improving production, marketing, etc. he also has linked up with a government program which will provide seeds and equipment at discount rates. they won't be free, but San Cristobal qualifies for a discount. this program is also only for women. The emphasis is on independence and not "paternalism", ie dependence on charity. it certainly worked with the women of the bank!

so lots happening.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

from my hospital bed in cuenca!

I’m writing this from my HOSPTIAL BED in Cuenca. As many of you know, I have been sick with one thing or another since September. I even had to delay my trip to Ecuador a bit, so I could recover from the latest bout of flu and a back problem that resulted from all the strain of coughing. I was fine when I got here, but I quickly developed a cough that just wouldn’t go away. I thought it was my usual adjustment to the climate and the pollution, but finally Ana Cecilia whisked me off to the doctor. A chest xray revealed that I had pneumonia! The doctor immediately put me in the hospital for 5 days of IV antibiotics and respiratory treatment. That was Thursday. He said today (Saturday) that I am doing really well, and he expects that I’ll be released on Monday. ¡Ojala!

I am doing fine, and frankly rather than being upset to be in the hospital i am relieved to finally find out what was wrong with me all those months. The doctor assures me I’ll be all “cleaned out” by the time I leave the clinic.

The pneumonia has really cramped my style! These were my last two weeks before I fly back on 3/15/10 and I had them chock full of plans. But, I hope to at least see everyone before I leave. Many of them are visiting me at the hospital.

San Cristóbal:

There are now 38 socias [members] of the Banco Comunitario de San Cristóbal; we started with 13. All socias meet on the 8th of the month to pay their loans and apply for new ones. I was there for their regular 8 February 2010 meeting, and again on Feb 20 for a special meeting to talk over proposals for this coming year. I brought down about $2000 in gifts from folks in Vermont and Bethany church. The socias decided to put $1000 in the loan fund, since all the existing money is in circulation and there are more women who want loans than money to lend.

At the meeting, they introduced all the new members of the bank and gave an impressive report of their finances. The original 2007 seed capital of $5000 has grown to $12,000 and they have about $4,700 more in “social loans” for which the bank gets the interest. So they have a total of almost $17,000 in circulation. Note: Social loans are a Mohamed Yunus idea where rather than giving charitable contributions, you make a loan. The lender gets the capital back, so the lender can help someone else, but the interest stays with the bank to pay the bank’s administrative costs. The discussed the few problems they had with “collections” during the hard times. But as a bank of “solidarity”, they worked with the women, until they got back on their feet, restructured the loan and everyone is in good standing.

I had originally planned on helping them start a new branch in another community, but they wisely nixed this idea since they have successfully integrated women from other communities into the bank. So the socias decided to match the other $1000 with their own funds and use it 1) to train all the women on computacion, 2) buy a new computer and 3) acquire the programs (and training) to put all their accounts in the computer. The municipality is giving them free space in the community building, so when I come back next year, they will be in their own space with their own computer.

They also nixed the idea of using the money to hire employees. They are happy with the current completely volunteer job of administering the loans. Because of this free labor, the bank’s expenses were $70, mostly for paper and copies.

Last year, the socias started a savings program to add money to their lending pool, but it was a bust. Because of the financial crises no one has had money to save; it all goes for necessities. The husbands of many of the women are working abroad either in the US, Spain or Italy. These husbands used to send money home to help support the family, and of course that has all dried up, since most of them are now unemployed. The remittances from abroad used to be the second highest item of Ecuador’s GNP, after petroleum! Now these women has to send money to their husbands so they can survive. Many migrants have come back to Ecuador or plan to. I for one, am happy about this development since the migration due to lack of jobs in Ecuador created a huge social crises, and their families – especially the kids - really suffered in their parent’s absence. Even if the migrants come back and do subsistence farming, at least they are working and can be there for their families.

On Saturday, 27 February 2010 i was invited to participate in the parade which commemorated the 150th year of the “parocialization” of San Cristóbal. That essentially means when the town was incorporated. Kids from three elementary schools in the parocia marched, and I marched with the with the socias of the bank. There were two other groups of women “Las Rosales” who are artisans who make the polleras [the beautifully embroidered skirts most indigenous women wear], and “Las Artesanas” who are another group who weave the panama hats and other artifacts from paja toquilla [the thin strawlike strips made from palm fronds]. For the parade, they dressed me up a pollera and lovely white camisa [the traditional blouse that goes with the pollera]. I think they got a bigger kick out of it than I did! Especially since on me the pollera was more like a mini skirt, since at 5’4” I tower over most of them.

This will be my last post from Ecuador, so I hope to see you and share so many more personal encounters and stories. i'll also send along some pictures when i get home. i brought my camera, but forgot the cable to download to my computer. i HATE aging!

I love being here, and I love sharing the experience with all of you…. Carolyn

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

2 of 3, from cuenca

Casa Maria Amor: I arrived in time to celebrate with the first graduating class of their big new project. La Asociación Mujers con Exito [The association of Successful Women] – a name they picked right from the start of the laundry and was it prophetic. The vocational training started expanding last year with a grant from Germany. The staff at the Casa is very professional, competent and smart. With this grant, they were able to rent a new building, outfit it with equipment, hire instructors and staff, and teach any woman who wants to learn the art of commercial cooking. Its kind of like NECI [New England Culinary Institute] in Cuenca. They got this grant because of the success of the laundry, which is still going strong, and is a companion vocational training piece with the cooking school. All the women who live at the Casa as well as other women who have “graduated” or who go there for services can participate. But it is voluntary, not obligatory. The women also participate in self-improvement classes like parenting, nutrition, gender issues, learning their legal and human rights…

At the graduation ceremony, they presented me with a beautiful plaque thanking me for starting them on the path to their dream – real autonomy. Needless to say, the tears were flowing all over the place! I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to return every year and see the progress these women make. While there is a lot of turnover at the Casa, the women and their kids stay involved with the Casa and its services, and so I get to see them all. My returning every years not only means a lot to me, also means so much to them, since they really think of me as their fairy godmother, and love my continued involvement in their lives. As I love them!!

There are two particularly bright girls who are 15 and 16 – Evelyn and Mayra. They don’t go to high school because although high school is free (all public school, from elementary through college is a right under their new constitution and it is all free) having to pay for uniforms, school supplies, books, transportation and the loss of income to the family puts it out of reach for a lot of families. So, these two will become my goddaughters and I’ll help them anyway I can.

Please know that even though I am the human being and the face they know, they also realize that all this came out of the generosity of family, friends and groups in the USA, and it boggles their minds! There is NO culture of volunteerism or philanthropy here, so for people like us - who didn’t even know them - to help them is astounding to them, and very very deeply appreciated.

All of South America is burdened by the history of colonialism, repression, corruption and the deep divide between the rich and poor. But thankfully this is changing, and pretty quickly. Indigenous people have organized. Countries like Ecuador have rewritten their constitutions taking back their countries from oligarchs and the multi-national corporations who were in cahoots with them, whose corruption and greed squandered their wealth. And from my first hand look at the grass roots process of change here in Ecuador, it has been totally transparent and corruption free. Every citizen 18 years of older HAS TO vote (kids 16-28 can vote, but its not obligatory), each candidate gets a little bit of money (maybe $3000) from the government to spend on campaigning. NO PRIVATE MONEY AT ALL is allowed. Voting is always on Sunday, and lots of other good ideas that I think we should consider adopting.

This year, I work with the kids at the Casa every day. They are all ages from toddlers to about 13. Its an outgrowth of my teaching Spanish to Nancy Reid’s class at the elementary school. Her students are avid to learn Spanish and to see how other kids live – what’s the same and what’s different. Her students made a fabulous book as a gift to the kids at the Casa. Each student had their own page, with their picture and all kinds of neat information about their likes, dislikes, hobbies, families, etc. It was a huge hit with the kids at the Casa, so I’m using it as a tool to teach them a little English, a little geography, a little reading, etc. I also take them on outings to museums – since they all love to draw – (and for all of them a first) and other fun places. They are also making their own drawings, messages and photos for me to bring back to the kids in Nancy’s class.

cuenca, march 3, 2010

Post #1 of 3, 3 March 2010, from Cuenca

Hola dear friends,

This is really part one of the three part post which will be the only one from Ecuador this year.. Its my only one, first, because my time here have been so full that I haven’t had a moment to sit down and write. Second, because I will be returning earlier than expected. My mom, Mary Tonelli, who is a lively 89, is however in the early stages of dementia. Up until now she has been adamant about staying in her home, and since her memory loss was not affecting her hygiene, or her ability to go shopping, cook or clean her house, we (my brother Quentin, my sister, Giovanna, and I) left well enough alone, knowing full well that the time would come when all this would change. And did it!

My brother, who lives in Maine, and my sister-in-law, Sonnie, went down for a visit and found my mother in terrible shape. She was sleeping all the time, not bathing, not eating, and worst of all, had a serious infection in a hammer toe. So they literally kidnapped her, bringing along her cat, and took her to Maine, and to the hospital there. At first it looked like she was going to lose a foot! The infection was so bad and there was no circulation in her left leg from her knee down to her toes. But she received the most marvelous care, first treating the infection, then a procedure to restore blood flow to her leg and foot, and then the removal of the dead toe. Due to her otherwise excellent health –heart, lungs, kidneys, etc. – she is recovering beautifully, and has been moved to a rehab center in Portland.

Quentin and Sonnie have been by her side 24/7. So I am coming home on March 16 so Quentin and Sonnie can take off on a much needed vacation.

My mom is doing really well in rehab, and Quentin really wants her to stay in Portland where there are a lot more options for assisted living, etc. She is doing so well, Menig doesn’t seem appropriate. We’ll see…

Now back to the present moment…

I have been reconnecting with all my dear friends here, including, of course, the Astudillos. How lucky can a gal be, when she can stay with a family like Pepe, Ana Cecilia and their two teens, Ana Elisa and Jose Antonio. In Vermont, I live alone and LOVE IT, but maybe that’s because I do get to spend real family time here in Ecuador when I am with them – sharing meals, trips, provocative discussions and just laughing a lot. Teens anywhere are a “challenge” - a euphemism for pains in the ass! But they are also a hoot, and I love watching these two and their friends mature from year to year. Ana Elisa finally passed her drivers test (she’s 18) but she is the worst driver ever, even worse than me! Her family is always kidding her that she will never be allowed behind the wheel of the family car. Jose Antonio (16) is drop dead handsome, madly in love, and addicted to punk and heavy metal. But he can’t sing worth a damn, but that doesn’t stop him. Flora their housekeeper and my dear friend and I cover our ears and roll our eyes when he takes out his electric guitar and starts howling. He has a band and a set of drums, but thank goodness the band has a rehearsal place outside the house!!! He however is a prize winning poet and artist.

Next Post: Casa Maria Amor

Thursday, February 26, 2009

about a month to go...

Hi all,

[the picture is of my dear friend Maria Illuminata from San Cristóbal, who invited me for an almuerzo of cuy which i helped her cook over the open fire; i fanned the fire...]

i´ve been sick with a touch of el gripe (the flu), and so were pepe and ana cecilia. we are all recovering...

It was Carneval for the last week here. It's a big holiday in ecuador, but does not have the atmosphere of the mardi gras of rio or new orleans. mostly its celebrated at home, so everything is shut down for 4 days! the only public tradition i can see is just a really annoying tradition of throwing water on people, including on perfect strangers walking along the street! i´m sure there is some ritual meaning, but for the life of me i can´t figure it out, and no one has been able to explain it to me. i was able to avoid getting mohada which means soaked. thank goodness, since i already had a touch of el gripe... pepe, however, got hosed down and soaked just walking along the street.

At Casa Maria Amor, the women of the lavandería Mujeres con Exíto are making progress all the time. it can be difficult because there are always new women entering. But together we created a formal system of accountability and training, so now things are running more smoothly. there is a peace corp volunteer (a woman in her 50s named susan ) working with the laundry, but her language skills are still pretty elementary so she has a problems communicating with them. i don´t think my language skills are all that great either, but i was able to help out on both sides...

several of the women i worked with last year are still involved at the laundry, even though they don´t live at the casa. sadly, this weekend, another woman i worked with last year - Carmen - and her 6 kids returned to live at the casa. She had returned to her husband, but it appears even though she changed, he certainly didn´t. she is moving to Guayaquil soon, since it is too dangerous for her here because her husband knows where she is. CMA has helped an organization in Guayaquil called Hogar de Cristo open the first shelter in Guayaquil. Carmen will be moving there with her family. Que triste!

in san cristóbal, i am working with the three officers of the bank on a project to train and hire 2 women from their group to act as prometoras, who would travel around southern ecuador scouting out tiendas (shops) and ferias (fairs and open air markets) where they can sell their different goods directly, without a middleman. i will use part of the money i collected in Vermont to help fund this project until they can sell enough stuff to generate a commission which could pay the prometoras.

i also plan to use part of the money to pay for capacitaciónes (training) in computer skills for the socias (members) of the bank. and the money is also funding the training for the new savings program they are starting.

the money from Bethany Church´s budget will buy two more computers for the community; now what the community needs is more training, mostly for adults. like in the USA, the kids seem to have skill, but the adults like the women in the bank need training. for their training the women of the bank plan to hire the kids to train them!!

it still remains to be seen when and if san cristóbal will get internet access, but at least if the socias have the basic computer skills, they can travel to Cuenca, if necessary, when they need the internet. meanwhile once they have the skills, they can put all their bank records on the computer, and that will make them a lot more efficient.

It is the rainy season here, and i´m not sure if it makes the news up north, but there have been a huge numbers of flooding rivers (inundaciones) washing out roads and destroying whole communities. this is occuring mostly north of here and on the coast, since there has not been a lot of rain here in Cuenca. Yesterday, a volcano near Quito, Tungeragua, erupted, sending ash about a mile into the sky. there is also volcanic activity in Chile. Also a multinational oil company had a huge oil spill in the amazonia of ecuador yesterday, destroying more of that precious environment... both mother nature and human nature seem to be on a rampage.

well, i have about a month to go. and i keep hoping for some sense of nirvana, or wisdom or something indefinable. but of course it just keeps eluding me. I must admit how much it disturbs me when people act like i am a great person because i am here. nothing could be farther from the truth. i am here working with areas of society that have been rejected, because it seems to be the only way i can make friends with the parts of myself i have rejected. its all interrelated. and muy dificil... and the language issue makes it so much harder. even though i am here with people i love and who love me all the time, because i can´t express myself well or always understand very well, i sometimes feel very alone.

it has always been clear to me - intellectually, that is- that we need to work on ourselves to help others, but also that we help others in order to work on ourselves. but intellectually and emotionally are two different things. pray for me!

i´m off now to watch "The Simpsons". In spanish! that should cheer me up!

abrazos from cuenca,