Monthly Archives: September 2011

Hiking to the Countryside

In the morning, I met with the assistant to the school district’s authority on education. I explained the history of our child language documentation project and that I would like to revisit the schools in the area to give community members and teachers the native language teaching materials we developed with Peruvian partners last year. The school authorities were friendly and signed a paper for me granting permission.
I got to hike over the mountains to the countryside again. Haven’t done this in eleven years. We were supposed to leave at 2 pm but Modesto was delayed and couldn’t leave his workshop. They kept asking if I wanted to hire a car, but I knew that would be expensive and would start us off with a precedent of perceived extravagance that would be hard to shake. Also, I wanted to see the breathtaking views again. We set out at 5 pm, carrying a couple of bags, a large coca cola for my stomach plus the charango and some pipes he is planning to use for irrigation. It was challenging to keep up with Modesto on these twisting desert roads up over a mountain pass where I could really feel my heartbeat and the wind was picking up. The road is unpaved and really hard for vehicles to pass on, although one or two do drive over it every couple of days. One of Modesto’s many jobs is to transport the male nurse who now works at the clinic in his community; he brings him back and forth to Tarabuco on the hospital’s motorcycle.
We chatted in my stilted Quechua and his more fluent Spanish all the way to the community; two of the hours in total darkness, but the road felt familiar.
I asked Modesto about the traditional medicine workshop. One of his civic responsibilities is currently to be president of a municipal association in Tarabuco; which involves hosting a lot of workshops. He says there is a new law which requires the integration of traditional medicine with Western practices. I asked if elders from the community were teaching traditional medicine, but he said no, it was specialists from Sucre. He said that it was a very positive trend however, and described an ailment of his eyes that the local doctor had been unable to treat with injections but was able to treat with herbs and minerals, to his great relief.
A few days later I met briefly with the young woman who is the new doctor in town. The clinic was built seven years ago and only got a solar panel for electricity two years ago. The doctor says they are unable to do anything requiring major electricity, referring most difficult cases to the hospital in Tarabuco. She said that it is very important for rural doctors to speak Quechua, and commented that Cuban doctors visiting in Tarabuco have been offering support to patients who cannot understand the instructions they are given for their medications.
Parked outside the clinic is a mobile dentist vehicle and I noticed that many people aged fifty and over were getting their teeth removed in this vehicle.

Twenty-four Hours in Tarabuco

I spent the next twenty-four hours hanging around with Modesto´s kids in Tarabuco. His wife and sister left almost immediately for the countryside after doing their marketing, and Modesto had work to do. The kids also disappeared off and on, so I went to spend time in the central plaza. At some point I recognized Lorenzo´s wife who was selling hamburgers and fries at a stand with her teenaged daughter, I had had lunch with her briefly in 2009 while trying to find a ride to get to the countryside.
She was very kind to offer me a free meal and a seat behind her hamburger stand, and I felt more like a guest than an alien for about an hour and a half.
I bought a charango (ten stringed Andean mandolin) thinking it would help pass the time socially, and it was a great hit with Modesto´s kids. We spent a lot of the evening taking turns passing it around and sharing strumming techniques. In between, his boys dove and jumped and chased each other around the large windowless room they all shared in town. They reminded me of kids everywhere – wiggling and chasing and making farting sounds when they got bored.
I had to resist the urge to protect them and keep them clean and safe (in my particular version of clean and safe.) They ran out to play in the rainy, muddy street with bicycle tires at around 8 pm. In my own childhood, kids ran around with great freedom; perhaps not to this degree, but a lot more freedom and lack of supervision than North American middle class kids enjoy today. I went to bed exhausted around 10 pm only to wake up and hear a young male voice around midnight; this young man hung out with the kids, chatting and whispering with the 15 year old girl until at least three am. Next day I asked who he was; the 15 year old said he is a cousin whose parents are away and have left him in town alone.

Twenty-four Hours in Tarabuco

I spent the next twenty-four hours hanging around with Modesto´s kids in Tarabuco. His wife and sister left almost immediately for the countryside after doing their marketing, and Modesto had work to do. The kids also disappeared off and on, so I went to spend time in the central plaza. At some point I recognized Lorenzo´s wife who was selling hamburgers and fries at a stand with her teenaged daughter, I had had lunch with her briefly in 2009 while trying to find a ride to get to the countryside.
She was very kind to offer me a free meal and a seat behind her hamburger stand, and I felt more like a guest than an alien for about an hour and a half.
I bought a charango (ten stringed Andean mandolin) thinking it would help pass the time socially, and it was a great hit with Modesto´s kids. We spent a lot of the evening taking turns passing it around and sharing strumming techniques. In between, his boys dove and jumped and chased each other around the large windowless room they all shared in town. They reminded me of kids everywhere – wiggling and chasing and making farting sounds when they got bored.
I had to resist the urge to protect them and keep them clean and safe (in my particular version of clean and safe.) They ran out to play in the rainy, muddy street with bicycle tires at around 8 pm. In my own childhood, kids ran around with great freedom; perhaps not to this degree, but a lot more freedom and lack of supervision than North American middle class kids enjoy today. I went to bed exhausted around 10 pm only to wake up and hear a young male voice around midnight; this young man hung out with the kids, chatting and whispering with the 15 year old girl until at least three am. Next day I asked who he was; the 15 year old said he is a cousin whose parents are away and have left him in town alone.

Pissing on Main Street

On my first visit to this region eleven years ago, I was given the name of a farmer (Lorenzo) from the countryside and instructed to take a small bus to the remote trading town of Tarabuco, where I would surely find him in the central plaza on a Sunday. From there, Lorenzo would take me hiking over the mountains to the community where I would do my research.
That´s why this time I felt no qualms traveling to the same small town to look for another farmer (Modesto) whom I had not been able to reach by phone. I knew he would most likely be in the town on Sunday, and that he would be waiting for my arrival, as prearranged by a mutual friend.
This time I was accompanied by a Bolivian teacher to the trading town. When we got to Tarabuco, we didn´t see my host in the square, so we walked down the main street toward the house where his father-in-law had been staying when we passed through two years ago. Sure enough, there were the farmer´s fifteen year old daughter and three younger siblings. Within a half hour, they had called their father on his cellphone and he had come over from the local hospital, where he was participating in a two day seminar on integrating traditional Andean healing practices with modern medicine. Three of his sisters also emerged.
It turns out that since 2009, the entire younger generation plus most of my generation has migrated to Tarabuco from the countryside, leaving only Modesto and his wife, plus a single sister and their mother, and one eleven year old daughter, back on the farm. Two grown siblings have married and moved to the cities of Santa Cruz and Buenos Aires. The fifteen year old daughter has dropped out of school and is in charge of caring for her siblings, ages 7, 9 and 11 in Tarabuco, mostly making sure they eat and get to school. I was told that the reason for this migration is schooling.
A parallel migration is happening among many families in rural Bolivia and Peru. Many communities only offer schooling through 6th (maximum 8th) grade. Kids are moving, younger and younger, to small towns and cities where they begin speaking only Spanish and participating in schools with more resources than they can find in the countryside.
My teacher friend made sure that I was in good hands with this family and that they would take me to the countryside after meeting with the local school authority in the morning to ask permission to enter the school. We spent a couple of hours shopping for food and traditional clothes in the markets around town, then my friend left. I made my way back to Modesto´s house and found the door locked, so stood waiting for awhile on the narrow sidewalk.
Then I saw her: a young woman in a skirt only a half block away, squatting to pee right on the sidewalk, and not avoiding my gaze. I have seen many folks peeing in Andean ditches and on trails, but never right on the sidewalk, and never being quite so indiscreet!
When I related this tale to my teacher friend back in the city, she and her husband laughed and said ´that´s our Andean culture!´ There is no collective shame among folks from the countryside about peeing in public, (although other streets in Tarabuco have signs forbidding the practice.)
On the other hand, lest these people seem entirely without a sense of manners or cleanliness: we went today to a public market in the big city of Sucre and found our way to the food stall area where my friend´s fifty-something niece has a tiny restaurant service. Everyone greeted each other with great formality, calling each other ‘aunt´and ‘uncle’, helping the niece serve her guests. We had a delicious two-course meal in one of the humblest looking places in the city and the diners were all incredibly gracious and formal with each other.

Fun at the FEL conference




Here are some pictures of new friends from the Foundation for Endangered Languages conference in Ecuador; presenters of many nationalities spoke about their efforts to revive languages as diverse as Quichua, Shuar, Siona, Tunica-Tulane, Palenquero and coming all the way from Australia, Czeckoslovakia, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, the US and of course, Ecuador.

An extra day in Ecuador


Today I missed my flight out of Quito by a factor of three: first, they expect international travelers to arrive three hours early and I had allotted two; second, we hit traffic so I was only an hour and a half early; third and most importantly, I was looking at a flight for the next day so I was off by an hour. So, arriving at 9 for what turned out to be a 9:25 flight, I was told the flight was closed and I would have to purchase another ticket. I was able to pay a penalty and just move the whole 2-day itinerary forward a day, although I have not yet been able to confirm the change of my Bolivian tickets; there may be more charges for that and I sincerely hope I can manage to make the change tomorrow morning before they force me to buy a whole new one.
So, after the initial shock I immediately felt glad about the possibility of spending another day in Ecuador, and my first instinct was to get myself back out to Imbabura and the beautiful volcanic mountains we had seen on Saturday. I decided to take a regular bus rather than book a special tour, so that I could see a little better what normal life is like here, something I have been almost entirely shielded from. I thought my best bet would be to ride to Otavalo and look for Peter Bernstein’s friend Rafael who is the grandfather of a Quichua speaking family that sells in the market there.
On the bus to Otavalo in Imbabura, I watched a little TV, mostly children’s shows including one Pee Wee Herman/Harold and his Purple Crayon imitation and one bizarre (to me) show featuring Ecuadoreans of African heritage acting like buffoons; this one also seemed to be a children’s show and seemed to be playing out extreme racial stereotypes in which a man offered to sell a woman a fruit and made an explicit comment to her about it; making it sound like the word for that fruit was also the word for female private parts; when she rejected the fruit, scolded him for being so forward and handed it back to her, he got to say the punchline: “OK, as long as I get to fondle your fruit…”
I was impressed with the beauty of the Ecuadorian mountains and at the same time, the scars of highway construction all over them. I remembered the recent National Geographic magazine that said we’ve passed into the era in which the sheer numbers of people on Earth constitutes the biggest force of nature affecting all else on the planet.
These mountains and the Ecuadorian climate in general is very much an extension of what one sees in Bolivia and Peru in the highlands except a lot more toward the tropical side of things. For those who know Bolivia I would say it compares to Yungas and Chapare; for those who know Peru, the Sacred Valley.
When I talked later with Rafael I found out that llamas are not found here (they are more adapted to the highlands) neither do people make chuño (freeze dried potatoes) which rely on the high desert to freeze them at night and melt them during the day.
Rafael told me that he has a second home about a half hour outside the city which I assume is a small farm, but he said that in the last three or four years, a combination of drought and frosts has ruined the crops and obliged farmers to sell their animals, so he has almost none left. Therefore, no sheep to produce wool for the handcrafts that seem to be his family’s main source of income; they have had to buy their wool from Peru in the past few years.
I am glad I met Rafael because as an Otavaleño merchant, he has a deeply rooted perspective that I had not encountered further south. Ecuadoran craftspeople are located in such a way that they have a very long (millenial) history of trade with people to the north and south of them. They have always gone great distances to sell their wares; the “Panama” hat originated in Cuenca, Ecuador, and Panama is a long way north. Today, Rafael makes trips twice a year to Seattle, Washington, Oregon, Florida and New York, making the rounds of universities where he sells crafts at tables on campuses. There is a certain solemn dignity about these Otavaleño merchants that stems from holding one’s own in the world of trade with people of many cultures for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Riding on the bus into Otavalo, and then walking with my bags from the bus station through town and up to the central market, I found the streets and sidewalks full of well-dressed people of all ages. Lots of schoolchildren in uniforms and wearing backpacks. Lots of men and women in traditional dress; which here includes white canvas sandals and white pants with a navy blue poncho and wide brimmed hat for the men, many of whom wear a single braid or pony tail in back. Women in traditional dress wear frilly white blouses with embroidery which are created here on computerized sewing machines; they also wear ankle length tight skirts and blue shawls, colorful wide-woven belts and many tiny golden beaded chains around their necks. There seemed to be quite a few kids and young people in various amounts of traditional dress as well as more modern clothes, which here include long slender wool skirts, knee socks and shoes for girls.
People were friendly on the street and elders especially greeted children and friends of all ages with kindness – a look, smiles, handshakes.
Rafael took me for a walk around the food market place which is somewhat open but has roofs and tables; he and I both remembered a time when these markets were just tents and people sold their wares on blankets on the ground. I talked about how in the north we tend to be pretty alienated from our food sources; only one in a hundred of us is now a farmer as opposed to one in ten as it was in the 19th century. Here there is just a huge abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, berries, and recently butchered meat ready for the buying.
I also got to meet two of his grandchildren, one daughter and his lovely wife. Maybe Rafael will visit us on his next trip north.