Chronicles of the Wayward Moot

WELCOME TO THE MOOT, oh world-wanderers and word-whisperers. After two years of Peace Corps. After 2,200 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. What. Comes. Next?


February 22, 2007



-Crawling back to the forefront with some words from the deep south-


An email recently clued me in to the fact that Mardi Gras has just come and gone, yet for me it came and went just like the other days near the Equator … full of life and flavor and unpredictability.   Back in the New Orleans gumbo-infused miasma of my younger days, Mardi Gras meant a few days off of school, flamboyant parades near and far which always promised to load me down with more plastic beads than I could comfortably carry, and raucous get-togethers with family and friends stuffing faces with spicy crawfish or McKenzie's (Always were and will remain the BEST) King Cakes, sorting the shiny colored doubloons and "signature throws" from Bacchus, Rex, Orpheus (Both Mandeville's and New Orleans'), Eve, Tucks, Thoth, Endymion, and the other Carnival Krewes whose names I can't remember.   I'd say Zulu too but I don't have any memories of going to a Zulu parade.  Those were the older days, the pre-Katrina days, the gone away days that now make up a vibrant but unraveling patchwork of memories of who I was and where I came from.   Like snippets of a smoky jazz trumpet solo weaving through the dank brick alleys of the French Quarter, those memories are familiar and yet unreachable, comforting but foreign. I don't know what to do with them sometimes.   Luckily there are plenty of new delights here in Ecuador to make up for any lost old memories, not that I am happy to be losing some of who I was, but at least glad to be gaining new facets of myself in the present.   Growing as I go.


A little after getting back from Quito a couple of weeks ago I fell ill and spent almost three solid days in bed trying to rest through a raging head cold.   I finished re-reading My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and immediately tore into Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.   That Pulitzer Prize-winning work is just another piece of a vast mental puzzle that I've been constructing from various works of Quinn and others, a framework for seeing the world that attempts to account for the triumphs and problems, joys and sorrows of EVERYTHING that we see and think and experience these days.   Hard to explain in a few short sentences, but literally everything can be seen through this conceptual lens and it makes more sense to me than any grand explanation I've been exposed to before.   The mixed-bag notion of national parks/protected natural areas, poverty and development in the 3rd world, salvationist religions, overpopulation, rampant misery and depression and unending petty distractions of urban residents, epidemic diseases and the scientists furiously trying to do the "right thing for humanity" by eliminating them, crime of all persuasions, pollution and extinction and nuclear holocaust and deforestation and inequality and cultural homogenization and McDonald's and Greenpeace and politicians and Eco-Anarcho-Feminism (whatever that is) are ALL part of an interconnected system that can best be perceived by A) Growing up within that system and getting a system-supported and approved education, thoroughly permeated with the insidious messages of that system and then B) Witnessing enough of the negative aspects of that system to make a conscious decision to see it as a maker of false promises, offering security and happiness and health and support but really just taking those things from the many and placing them in the hands of a few at the expense of a sense of wholeness and belonging and harmony.   As might be obvious at this point, I'm still a long way from being able to articulate this feeling accurately, but I feel I'm on my way to someplace good at least as far as understanding it is concerned.


Back to Carnaval/Mardi Gras and the hilarity that naturally ensued.  My Chuffmate, having spent Carnaval in her site last year, decided to come to Zaruma for this one.   There was the drinking of much coffee, the eating of much tigrillo, and the sharing of much fascinating conversation and beer.  Then arrived three other volunteers who aimed to help make this a party to remember.   In Ecuador Carnaval is celebrated with water balloons, squirt guns, pressurized canisters of colored foam, and flour indiscriminately applied to any and everyone within throwing, shooting, squirting, or dousing range.   In Zaruma you add a lot of fantastic live music (brass band, keyboard, and a troupe of singer/dancers on a stage facing the immaculately kept Parque Central) and a suggestive beauty pageant to elect the "Reina de Carnaval 2007" featuring teenager girls in wild glitzy costumes and swimsuits parading around in front of a crowd of their neighbors.   This "reina (queen)" bit is completely ubiquitous in Ecuador, and it seems that every tiny little pueblo and jungle hollow and Andean mountain nook loves to gather the age-appropriate girls together, dress them up like exotic birds, and make a big show of choosing among them.   Perhaps the girls really do enjoy feeling honored and admired, perhaps they appreciate being part of a Latin American tradition, but I can't help but see the undertones of a machisto society in these pageants that unconsciously teach the girls (and those hundreds or thousands of spectators) that the only real measure of a woman's value is in her beauty.  Sure enough, there is a real pride in the Zarumeños centered on the fabled beauty of their women, and the truth is that there are many with strikingly attractive features walking the streets and maneuvering the stairways here.   However, this is a town of nearly 100% mestizo descent with a very strong Spanish presence (Having been a colonial post with the aim of extracting as much gold as possible for the Spanish crown for more than four centuries) and the women here are very very Spanish-looking.   All of the candidates for reina shared that characteristic, and I can't help but wonder how that makes the daughters of more indigenous families feel.   At a certain point though, I remember that Ecuador is an extremely diverse country and that just a few hours higher into the Andes the situation would be reversed, with the indigenous-looking people being held up as the ideal or norm and those of Spanish descent being the minority. Fascinating.


SO, a few other PCV friends arrived and brought with them some balloons (thank goodness, since I was getting to think that I'd be spending this Carnaval without soaking one unsuspecting Zarumeño in a water balloon blitzkrieg).   We all shared the latest stories and immediately set out to beer ourselves up and establish my rooftop as Carnaval central for a few hours, filling water balloons and buckets with water from the tap, then waging a playful and vociferous aqua-war on anyone who ventured too closely into the range of our watery weapons.   Up the street about 20 meters a group of young men were hanging around a hatchback blasting festive music and drinking heavily, and they became something like a rival tribe, beaconing us to come down from on high (and into the range of their water gun), while we implored them to approach the base of El Castillo so we could pelt them with water bombs and great deluges of buckety goodness.   This went on for a few hours, but after a while it was getting on the late side and I went down stairs to finish packing, as we had some camping in mind.

At 6:30 the next morning, coffee'd and toasted and egg'd up for breakfast, the five of us hoofed it up the steep streets to hop a ranchera the two and a half hours (and 8,000 vertical feet) up to Cerro de Arcos.   My friend Darwin was on hand as ayudante (driver's helper) and couldn't help but get a kick out of this pack of gringos heading for the hills on such a fugly day, as it was overcast and rainy.   With some of the others dressed in cotton jeans and sweatshirts, I was a little curious to see how well they held up to the cold and wind and rain of the magic cerro, but away we went.


Fortunately, we broke through the clouds and drenching rains at around 11,000 feet and when we hopped off of the truck at the start of the hike, everyone was relieved to have sun on their faces and the trip took on the mood that I was thinking would have been difficult to achieve in a sustained freezing rain.   The rest of the day was filled with exploration, wonderful talks, the passing of whiskey and eggs and chocolate and coffee and Slim Jims (!), and eventually my amiga and I had set up the tent in a grassy spot, the other peeps had settled into a cave, and we had all met up again to make a fire and get ready to make dinner.   To describe the strange powers that inhabit Cerro de Arcos is a real challenge, so I will just say that the strangely shaped boulders and the sound of the wind through the arches and the way the clouds toy with the mountains all produce a locale ideally suited for thinking deep thoughts.   Macaroni and cheese and tuna in our bellies, "Chuff" and I retired to the warm and dry haven of the tent as a fiercely cold mist rolled in, making it nearly impossible to see ten feet ahead.


The next morning (Feb, 20) we awoke, shared a breakfast of oatmeal, granola, and raisins, passed the coffee around, and bid farewell to our three visitors.   Having found out the day before that there were no rancheras running that day – HAHAHA- their plan was to hit the dirt road and head in the opposite direction from Zaruma, to a place called Manu, where they would try to rendezvous with Lonnie, another volunteer, and then try to catch a bus higher into the Sierra and back to their sites.   The Chuffmates had different plans.  First, we headed off to the south to hike up a hill we'd seen that overlooks the huge valley leading down to Zaruma.   Vast windswept scrublands led up to towering boulders and cliffs dropping thousands of feet down to lush waterfall-pocked cloud forest too steep to have been cleared for cattle raising.   We sat in silence and took in the scenery stretching to a 360 degree horizon of mountains and clouds, pondering the thoughts that come only to those who let the landscape speak to them.   It's a BIG world out there.  Whoever says it's a small world spends too much time in cities and on highways and the other arteries of travel where humans tend to follow one another.   Anyone who ventures out to get to know the in-between spaces will realize, as we realized sitting on that cliffside, that the Earth – tiny speck of dust floating in space that it is – is still much much bigger than anyone could become familiar with in a lifetime.   Might as well try and see what you can, I say.


We returned to our packs and headed back toward the road to wait by the side of a clear stone-filled river for the chance camioneta (truck) happening by on the way to Zaruma, but hour after hour passed with no luck.   A few people on horseback, a few vehicles going the wrong way, and one going the right way but not to our destination.  Time ticked by deliciously and we were in the hands of the moment, prepared to camp out and wait for a ride the next day despite dwindling food and a shared concern for being out a little too long.   The tiniest features of the landscape began to evoke interest.  We skittered around on hands and knees spotting mushrooms and the molted shells of insects and miniature flowers and lichens and SPIDERS!   Fish in a pond and dragonflies danced for the joy of it.  A discarded horseshoe made its presence noticed, and we packed it up, knowing the Ecuadorian custom of hanging a horseshoe in the home for good luck (Hang it like a "U," otherwise all the luck will fall out!)   We waited and waited and lived life with no complications, and it felt simple and healthy and right.  Then a ghost came, or so we imagined.   A man and his dog appeared walking around the clouded road and approached.  He explained that he was walking up the hill to make a phone call (cell reception was only reachable from the edge of the valley and that was only reachable by climbing a bit).   We related that we were waiting in hopes of getting transport to Zaruma, and the man seemed doubtful that we'd encounter anyone going that way before night.   It was already 4:30pm or so, and he offered to take us into his small outpost home (where he and his family stayed temporarily while in the area tending to livestock) if we wanted to.   We said we'd talk about it while he went up the hill to make his call.


Set up the tent and get another night together out in the Ecuadorian highlands, or spend an evening in the wood and mud house of a true campesino who offered what little he had to two gringos by the side of the road?   Both alternatives were temping for their own reasons, and each had its certain drawbacks.  It was already proving to be a wet and frigid night, and we were low on food with little to offer in return for the lodging.   Remain independent and take care of ourselves, or let chance and circumstance dictate the course of the evening?  A cold drizzle had moved in, and we decided that if he didn't take too long to get back, we'd take him up on the offer and have ourselves a rare and unique opportunity to get to know the "real" Ecuadorian campo life.   So we waited.  And waited.  It got darker.  It got rainier.   The dog showed up and skirted us, heading back up the road without any sign of the man.  Straaaange.  Where had he gone?   Did he decide that his offer had been too generous and went home by a back way?  We didn't know, and every passing minute it seemed to make more sense to just forget about it and set up the tent before the rain got too hard.   Then, when we were about to make moves towards setting up camp, the man returned from the mists.  Excited for the chance to partake in the hospitality of strangers, strange as we were, we hefted our packs and followed Don Antonio up the road into the cloudy dusk.


In short, it was yet another incredible Peace Corps experience, though I feel Peace Corps had nothing to do with it besides giving the pretext for our being in the right place at the right time.   Having spent some of the previous several hours daydreaming of food we would inhale given half a chance, suddenly our world became the dark and pine-fire-warmed interior of an adobe kitchen, wooden table in front of us topped with a plate of boiled platano and bowls of rice and seasoned potatoes topped with, was it? could it really be?   Yes, CUY!  We had definitely touched on the hypothetical gastrointestinal delights of a nice fried guinea pig and now - what divine providence! – here it was before us, great delicious portions of that Andean mana right next to metal cups of sweet hot tea.   We passed around our remaining cookies and some raisins and shared in the warmth of the fire and the richness of the experience.  The children, a boy of maybe 13 and a girl of maybe 4, talked shyly and showed us around their father's modest plot of land.   The sun set and drew rich streaks of fiery pink across the sky, a fat little cachorro (puppy) peed himself with excitement at having the strange visitors rubbing his back, and eventually we unpacked our sleeping bags and settled into a corner on the floor of the room used for sleeping.   Antonio and his wife and the little girl slept in one bed covered with heavy woolen blankets while their son slept in a heap of blankets and cushions on the floor.   The room smelled of wool and wood and dust and warmth.  A single candle burned with a yellow glow while we all whispered our final thoughts of the day and drifted to sleep as the wind whipped fiercely outside.   The family offered to get up at 4:30am to make us a breakfast of empanadas, but as much as that could have hit the spot, we profusely thanked them for the generous offer and said not to worry, we'd get up at 5:30 and take our leave early to try and catch a ride in the back of the first available pickup truck.


The alarm screamed to life at the appointed time and I used the glow from my cell phone to illuminate the duties of packing up.   Once ready to go, we thanked the family again and let the son (and the fat fat pup) escort us to the road past the mules and the guard dogs.  Stars dotted the deep navy blue of the pre-dawn sky as this man and that woman ambled down to the river in the chill air marveling at the special night we'd shared with this land and its people.   Eventually the stars winked out, the sky paled, and the golden glow of sunlight crept down from the pine-dotted hills to the West, over the waking cows and horses and yellow flowers of the scrub bushes to meet the road, and the river, and US.  


Only after we had returned to Zaruma, unpacked, and done a bit of reflecting and relaxing did I remember that Mardi Gras 2007 was now history.




Blogger Jade said...

Wow, thats gorgeous, I felt like I was there in that little house, smelling those smells... beautiful!

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

Amazing. I would now like to subscribe. Thanks.

7:01 PM  

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