Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Public Transportation: A Journey on Jumandy

One of the easiest ways to get around Ecuador has been by bus. Each city has at least one bus station and several bus offices over the town. There are many rewarding factors to taking the bus: price, convenience of snack, and the never-ending kung fu movies.
Buses cost about an hour for every hour you take them. From Quito to Tena, a beautiful drive crossing the Andes, is $6 for the approximate 6hours you are on the bus. Another bus from Tena to Agua Santa is $5 for the 5 hour trip and then you are only a short walk to base camp. The bus offers a large selection of high class seats. With no air-conditioning and sometimes functional windows, most seats recline back but normally to your disadvantage as the seat in front of you is practically in your lap. Aisle or window seat can always be a difficult decision. Aisle, you risk having a person who was unable to get a seat standing next to you for hours, at times practically sitting in your lap. Window, on the chance it rains, despite the window being closed, water will drip down from who-knows-where to splash on you with the turns of the bus. Luckily, I have mastered sleeping through the journeys despite the little bumps along the way, including the big bumps along the road.
Every bus station offers a variety of meals at the street side vendors that provide a small plastic stool for a nice sit down option. There are also snacks from fruit to ices in the stations. (I have even made short trips to the bus station just to eat some of the late night beef on a stick they grill and serve with mayonnaise.) But in case you decide to pass on all the food, there are vendors who board the buses for a couple minutes at a time throughout the journey who will yell everything they are selling at least three times before you realize they are speaking Spanish. One of my favourite vendors is the guy who is selling 10 oranges for a dollar. I’m always impressed by the speed he yells but more impressed by the buyer- what the hell are you going to do with 10 oranges that you spontaneously buy on a bus.
Almost every bus contains an old tv that has been put into the bus (threatening to fall from the ceiling at any time), in addition to the red fake velvet and virgin statues in honour of one of the travelling Saints. Ecuador might be one of the few places where people love Steven Segul films. And if it isn’t a Segul film that has been dubbed over in Spanish, its a Jet Lee kung fu movie- so you get to spend however many hours learning how to kick ass with only a plank of wood. When there is no movie, there is music- which has included a Michael Jackson CD on repeat for 5hrs, clearly trying to impress a bus full of gringos, a Spanish comedy radio station that wasn’t funny by any means, and a Spanish meringue CD that continuously skipped.
I have appreciated the buses and their helpfulness though. The buses do better off-roading than my 4x4 Jeep Grand Cherokee and cross bridges I wouldn’t dare jump on. The guy who collects peoples tickets/money has often told me when my destination town was getting close or has helped with the loading/unloading of my bag- and in one instance even pleased me by taking over driving for a bus driver that insisted on driving way too fast for the curves on the road. I am still amused that a guy gets paid not to just collect the tickets from people, but to hang out the door as the bus is speeding along, yelling the destination at pedestrians repeating the town name at least 10 times in 5 seconds. But in all honesty, travelling via bus has been one of the easiest things to figure out in Ecuador. And, if anyone ever wants to travel from Tena to Agua Santa, I know a guy who has offered to chauffer me anytime- now that’s networking!

My Birfffday

A year ago, I never would have guessed I’d be spending my birthday while living in Ecuador. In the past year, I have gone through relationship trouble, confusion about my ‘next step’, the rewards of graduating from university, bettering friendships, development of leadership, appreciated moments for what they offer, loved, laughed, cried, and all that other stuff- but as I said good-bye to 21 and hello to 22 over the weekend, I knew in my heart it all is a part of life, made me better, and I wouldn’t trade my year because I am happy, in Ecuador, and enjoying it. So, a quick thanks to the family and friends who were there to support me through my struggles and encourage me in my achievements.
Now that I’m through the mushy stuff...I’ll tell you how to celebrate a 22nd birthday in the jungle. This phase with enough staff members, we’ve been able to pick from a couple weekends to have one weekend off in Tena with another staff member. I originally picked week 3 of 10 because I knew in week 7 and 8 I’d be close enough to leaving I should power it out, especially with a weekend in Tena at week 5. When I realized week 3 weekend contained my birthday, Caroline, my roomie, picked that as her weekend off too. We left basecamp on the last bus to Tena that passes by at 2.30 generally. $5.00 and 5 hours later, we were arriving in Tena. We walked into the hostel GVI always uses when we pass through and got a room for 2 nights ($8 each per night) with no problems. With ambitious plans of partying the night away, after an hour of internet, some chicken, and a pina colada each, we retired to the room to watch 500 Days of Sumer at 9pm. Saturday morning I woke-up and read the birthday cards my parents and brother had sent me a head of time, went to breakfast, dropped of laundry, and sat in front of internet again for another couple hours. With a chicken lunch and avocado milkshake (which are surprisingly un-avacado-tasting) and grocery shopping done, my afternoon contained more internet time. Dinner was at Pizza Hilton, where we enjoyed more meat and after dinner drinks consisted of a 1.25L bottle of Coke and a new bottle of rum. Caroline and I went back to the hostel to start drinking and eat some slices of chocolate cake she had bought for me. At the bar we met one of the rafting guides from my ‘Thanks for Survivor’ experience who was happy to see me still alive and well. We got hustled into going to the local club where we showed up all the other gringos with our meringue moves. After dancing the night away, we returned to the hotel room where I proceeded to make a fool of myself on a skype video call to England to talk to Edwin, but not before I planted my face in my remaining cake and chugging rum straight from the bottle. I normally wouldn’t admit to such acts, but the pictures are already on Facebook. Sunday consisted of recovery via sleeping before getting on the 3.30pm bus back to the reserve. All in all it was a simple and fun weekend with the main factors of chicken, alcohol, and internet- all of which you can’t get in the jungle easily...

Hector's Island Vacation

As a volunteer last phase, I got to take a field trip out to Hector’s Island- stopping in Coca on the way there and back for pastries, chicken, internet, and other grocery shopping. This phase on staff, 3 staff members went, leaving Jenn, Jas, and myself to take care of base camp- and boy did we live it up. Let me start by saying, meat is very hard to come by. With no electricity and the lack of land, time, and ability to raise chickens- we are limited to the option of a local plate of seco de pollo- a chicken dish with rice at the market on Saturday mornings. However, when you no longer have to cook for 30 people and vegetarians: the statement ‘when there is a will, there is a way’ takes on a new meaning. Thursday morning I briefly woke up at 5am as I heard the volunteers making their way to the road to catch the morning bus to Coca. I woke up again at 8.30 which was a lovely sleep-in from the traditional 6:30am morning. Having a breakfast of scrambled eggs and fruit, I was absolutely thrilled to not eat porridge. I got ready to teach TEFL down at Puerto Rico for the Thursday lesson. Still on base camp were a couple of graduates from the Yachana technical high school doing internships. So, they helped with teaching the lesson and more importantly buying a chicken from the small shop.
It was really neat actually. We looked at a couple different hens outside before deciding to look at one. The store owner said she was going to call Tyson. I was expecting some teenage nephew or farm worker to appear, but instead it was a slim german shepard. She picked up a pebble, threw it at the hen, and told the dog to catch it. Tyson took off like a rocket, tail wagging, and with a playful bark, the dog had caught the hen within minutes despite its attempted escape up the hill side. Listening to the command to drop it, the Ecuadorian students took the chicken form the dog and we paid our $15. To skip the details of killing and gutting the chicken, it ended on our plates for a delicious dinner of seco de pollo and produced a delicious chicken noodle soup the next day. Some afternoon swimming on Friday complimented the pancake breakfast well- this is life in the jungle. Saturday morning at the market consisted of eating chicken, buying chicken tuna, and enjoying a scenic bus ride back on the bird watching top of the tourist lodge’s vehicle as oppose to the traditional canoe we take. For lunch, we had fried chicken, dinner was tune, and Sunday we enjoyed chicken soup again. We made a couple of jokes as we put lentils on to boil Sunday afternoon because the volunteers would be back for dinner which meant we were back to eating beans. We did accomplish a lot of dirty work consisting of attacking termites every day, repairing broken boardwalks, and hauling gas tanks around for cooking- but why dwell on the bad when there was so much good food.

This is my son

There have been tons of fun and rewarding experiences out in the rainforest. But one of the great things we do to build community relations is teach English as a foreign language (TEFL) in a few small communities all within a couple hours walk. We teach in Puerto Rico on Tuesday and Thursday, the closest community which also has a shop selling a few types of sweets, chips, and sodas. We teach in Puerto Salazar on Saturdays, playing a bunch of games with the kids which normally includes a few random kicks and slaps from the kids as they make the others laugh. Then, there is our newest community- Rio Bueno. Since that school had never had English before, we decided as a staff that one member should go to it for the first several weeks to keep some consistency.
Rio Bueno is the furthest of the three communities and the only one that we go to on the north side of the reserve. At 7am the TEFL group waits on the road that goes through the reserve which is just a rock, one lane road. We catch the daily morning bus that goes to Tena for 25cents each. The bus passes anytime from 6.50-7.45am. We get off the bus 10minutes later as it turns to go to Agua Santa, a community on the west side of the reserve. We could stay on the bus, because it turns around and drives back on the same road but it saves time as we walk the next 15 minutes to the school. The school is located along a narrow path in the forest. The small building contains one classroom, one teacher and 11 students about 8 years old. There is a small field behind the school with two make shift football goals. The students at this school are particularly well behaved and keen to learn English making it a rewarding experience. A majority of the hour lesson is taught in Spanish with a lot of repetition and simple games to entertain the kids. I just finished the 3rd class and they have learned Hello. My name is...This is... How are you? I am happy, sad, tired, good and numbers 1-10. You find innocent amusement while teaching at the mispronunciation of the students when the students say sex instead of six, for example. But my favourite has been practicing introductions. Mason’s name has a pronunciation similar to my-son. So, I have now successfully introduced Mason as my son to the class numerous times, but of course they don’t see the joke in it.

Destination: Agua Santa

In the jungle, meals consist of lots of veggies that we order in every Friday, rice or pasta, and a type of bean: red, white, chickpea, lentil, occasionally black-eyed peas. Once a week we get eggs, soya, tuna, and bread with a rubbery cheese (that I swear is made from powdered milk, but doesn’t taste that bad semi-melted on toasted bread). Milk is made from powder. Water is room temperature and either chlorinated or filtered. Lighting is a candle on a rock. Snacks are brought in with volunteers from Quito or Tena or some chips and chocolate can be bought from a small shop on the first floor of a house 20 mins away. Then there’s Agua Santa.
The local community is located 15mins up stream by canoe or can be accessed via the road that cuts through the reserve. And, on a Saturday, its the place to be.
Every week we ask for a canoe from Yachana to pick us up at port at 7.30am. Every week it is at least 20mins late. Which double serves as a form of entertainment and quick money as we take bets and buy in to the pot of what time the canoe will arrive, the winning time being when the canoe rope is grabbed by someone on the port.
Typically when we go to Agua Santa, I make a fashionable effort to impress people. Wellies (that is short for wellingtons, also known as RAINBOOTS to all the non-Brits) are very helpful as the beach access to the market can be muddy or require you to step in some river. Shorts are worn to avoid overheating. A t-shirt of any sort is worn- preferably with some large tacky American brand on it to reassure everyone that you are in fact a foreigner in case they couldn’t already tell. A backpack for all the crap I buy. And lastly, a lifejacket which is mandatory, that I strap to my backpack when on land.
There are a few permanent shops at the market and the rest are regular vendors- generally between 7-10 stands. You can buy soaps, batteries, shot gun shells, willies, underwear, bracelets, paper and pen, and shirts. The permanent shops sell bread, cheese, eggs, soda, pasta, veggies, sugar, coffee, beer, chips, and candy. Additionally, there is a lady who sells seco de pollo, a delicious dish with rice, yucca, and a sort of chicken stew for $2.00, and a local bar that is surprisingly busy at 8am (and stays busy as often times on Saturday nights you can hear the loud pumping of music from the insane parties Agua Santa must be having).
It is nice to get to the market and have a presence in the community. Tour groups from the nearby Ecolodge occasionally stop through as well. At the market it is nice to see the guides from the lodge and briefly catch up with them or to buy ridiculously stupid/useless items. I have witnessed the mass buying of little boys underwear for big boys to wear around camp, bracelets decorated with pictures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and t-shirts to be cut into Steveis (no sleeves, with large arm holes originally sported in the jungle by the one and only Steve Guidos). Regardless of the random things accumulated on a Saturday, the cold coke and chicken are appreciated. [The optional Saturday night warm Pilsner beer and box Peach flavoured wine are bought at Agua Santa as well, to the enthusiasm of the volunteers].

North by Northwest: The Ecuador Version

To be back at base camp as staff is something I was really excited about. Nervous too. I had just spend the past 10 weeks learning the trails, projects, and lending a helping hand. I knew I was capable, but when it comes to leading 5 other people through the rainforest who have never been it before- you can’t help but feel pressure. Because, the truth is I didn’t know where we were going either.
Ok, well that’s not entirely true. Compass in my left hand and GPS in my right, I knew we were going 400meters further north. But, I had no idea how well we were going to get there. And again, not because I wasn’t capable, but because I had never done this route and the terrain could contain anything from massive tree fall making it difficult to pass, to steep ravines requiring careful footing.
GVI has several different research projects that the volunteers help collect data for including mammals, birds, butterflies, and amphibians/reptiles. I was presented with the amazing opportunity of writing the project proposal for the butterfly project- meaning I would be fine tuning the research and details of how to conduct the project and collect data on road impacts on the reserve’s butterfly species. The project was too be conducted along 4, 400meter transects running north of the road, evenly spread out. Each transect would contain 5 trap sites- 0m, 100m, 200m, 300m, 400m from the road. Each site would contain a ground butterfly trap and an aerial butterfly trap. But, in order to do the research, we first had to get the traps up.
The compass was pointing us in a Northward direction. The GPS was telling me how far we still had left to go until reaching the computer plotted points. 10 traps, 5 rolls of string, 2 rocks, and one machete- that is how real science starts. The slight change in the project to look at road disturbance specifically on the butterflies meant we wouldn’t be using pre-cut and used trails. So we macheted (minimally) our way to each point to put up the traps. The thrill of finding the location to place the traps was only replaced by successfully throwing rocks over 20meters high branches and hoisting up the aerial traps without snags.
I would end up leading a lot of surveys in the jungle- but for such a unique start to go well- left me really excited for the next.