Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nice People Make My Day

I am a firm believer in being friendly and nice to people, even - and especially - if you're not sure they're in the mood to be friendly and nice back. Because if you're nice to people, you give them the opportunity to be nice to you, which is just... nice. I had two wonderful 'niceness' moments today, and they improved my entire afternoon (which, until that point, had consisted of riding my bike through exceptionally vigorous winds and driving rain to accomplish the errands I had set for myself).

I went to the post office first, to mail a few letters and a small package. I brought with me a stack of old 39-cent stamps, as well as a bunch of 41-cent stamps, since (heads up, letter-writers!) postage is going up to 42-cents on May 12. I didn't have very high hopes that I would be able to use them all up, but the man at the counter looked amused that I'd brought all my stamps, and said, go ahead, you can put them all over! So he did the calculations for me and I plastered stamps over the entire front side of Heike's package to Germany. As you can imagine, I was thrilled.

After the post office I headed to Next Adventure, an excellent outdoor store where I got a bunch of stuff before I went to Ecuador (because my former co-workers are awesome and gave me gift certificates as a going-away present). My main goal was to check out their bargain bins for a few things and compare prices on others, but also to replace the travel pillow that I oh-so-foolishly left on the plane in Panama. When I got to checkout with my pillow, I started making small talk with the woman at the register, commenting that this was the second such pillow I had purchased from them, since it was such an awesome pillow and since I had oh-so-foolishly left the first one on a plane in Panama. Her response? "Oh, that sucks! Well, we'll give you a discount on this one." Now, how cool is that?

My ride home was much more enjoyable after that, and I even had the opportunity to continue the flow of niceness by helping a frustrated driver find where he was going.

Fellow human beings are wonderful.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why I Volunteer

Before leaving for Ecuador, I completed my training to become a Sanctuary Tour Guide with the Portland Audubon Society, and since I have been back I have been leading tours of kids (K-3rd grade) several times a week.

To be perfectly honest, I am still not entirely sure from day to day whether or not I actually like working with children; some mornings I wake up feeling ready for anything they might do to challenge me, and other days I practically dread their arrival. But I find that, when the tour is over, I can almost always pick something positive out of it, even if I feel utterly defeated. (Fortunately, this doesn't happen all that often, but I definitely don't envy most of these teachers' jobs!)

But what really keeps me going back for more are those golden moments when I can tell that I've made a difference to a child. I was blessed with two of them today, in a group of kindergarteners. The first came after we had taken our hike around the wildlife sanctuary and were catching our breath before going inside to check out the animal pelts. One of the kids piped up and exclaimed, "That was awesome!" Her friend then jumped in and corrected her, saying, "No, it was better than awesome. It was the BEST!" I love taking little kids out into the woods. :)

The other wonderful moment today was relayed to me by a fellow volunteer, who had been accosted in the parking lot by one of the children who had been in my group, right before their bus departed (I had already gone inside). She said he came up to her and grabbed her coat and said earnestly, "Tell Miss Lacey I had a really fun time. Tell her it's from Andrew."

Now, who wouldn't want to keep going back for moments like those?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Midnight Musings

I've never considered myself a night person, but sometimes when my head hits the pillow my brain just lights up and starts going a mile a minute, and there's no way to stop it. I spent several hours last night trying to ignore it and go to sleep, then finally got up, grabbed my journal, and started writing, in the hopes that getting my thoughts on paper would help me get to sleep. It didn't, but it was still nice to write things down. Here's a snippet of what was charging through my mind last night...


I want to go back to the Galápagos, back to San Cristóbal, back to Jatun Sacha. I want to stay a good long time, to soak up the island into my very bones, into my blood, let it become my thoughts and my breath and my daily sustenance. Long enough to grow calm, unhurried, steady and sure. I want to become a part of the island.

I want to write a book: Under San Cristóbal Stars: A Year in the Embrace of an Enchanted Isle (title subject to reality check). Part natural history, part personal journey, part documentary photography, part original research into... something.... I want to chronicle my own evolution in the Galápagos.

I can't sleep. My mind is whirling with visions and possibilities, things I want to experience, places I want to visit, people I want to get to know better; things to pack and things to leave behind, eventualities to plan for, arrangements to make; journals to keep, photographs to take, sketches to attempt; sunrises to revel in, stars to marvel at, wonders to witness; ways to make it happen.


I keep saying that I don't have the money to travel, but the truth is that I only don't have the money to travel and stay here at the same time. If I radically simplified everything, packed up, and left my Portland life behind, I could live considerably more cheaply in the Galápagos (as well as traveling through the rest of South America). As long as I'm not working, and as long as I'm living on saved money, this would translate into being able to be unemployed longer and realize my travel fantasies. Hmmm....


I think I finally got to sleep at around 3:30 this morning.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Under San Cristóbal Stars

I haven't posted yet about my trip to Ecuador because I haven't been able to figure out where to begin... and I haven't wanted to admit that I'm actually back, and that my trip is over. But I've been home for a week now, so I figure it's time to buckle down and translate a mishmash of journal entries and memories into a post fit for the web. This post will just deal with my volunteer experience - after that I'll hopefully post about the island tour and other traveling I did. I'll try to break this into sections, but be forewarned - it's still going to be mostly stream-of-consciousness, and will likely be long! :) If you want to skip right to the pictures, you can find them here.

The Island
The main purpose of my trip to Ecuador was a two-week volunteer stint on Isla San Cristóbal in the Galápagos, with Fundación Jatun Sacha (Jatun Sacha means "big forest" in Quichua - the foundation was named for the first reserve on the mainland of Ecuador, which was, appropriately enough, in a big forest.) The Jatun Sacha reserve is in the highlands of the island, a 45-minute taxi ride from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the port town (which also happens to be the capital of the island province). The taxis are white pickup trucks, so you generally sit in the back with your gear and hold on for dear life, because the road to Jatun Sacha is horrendous. Many taxi drivers refuse to go there because the road is so bad. Those that do can't always get all the way to the station, which is at the very end of the dirt-and-lava road, so they drop people off as far out as they can get and still turn around and get out again. The small town of El Progreso is on the road to the station, about 20 minutes outside of town, and there are a few neighbors within walking distance, but other than that, the station is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I absolutely loved it.

The Station
The station has four main structures (the kitchen, the old house, the new house, and the staff cabins), two nurseries, two main food crop areas (one right by the old house and one a 5 minute hike downhill and a 10-minute hike back up, depending on how many crates of tomatoes you were carrying), and lots of forest. I slept in the old house, along with a bunch of other volunteers and a few staff members. All of the buildings have electricity except the old house, which is wired but, at the time I was there, not live. I was actually grateful for that, since electric lighting seemed like such a foreign luxury that far from civilization. It was really nice to have electricity in the kitchen, of course, for cooking and meals (and charging camera batteries), but somehow it seemed much more peaceful and appropriate to use candles and headlamps in the living areas. We could also kid ourselves that we attracted fewer mosquitoes in the old house than the new house with all its lights, but I don't think anybody actually believed it.

There are 9 full-time staff at the reserve – the station director, the volunteer coordinator, the cook, two kitchen helpers/house cleaners/etc., and 4 crew leaders (for lack of a better term). The staff are called cholos, or locals, and most (except the director, the volunteer coordinator and the cook) speak no English. It was a great opportunity to practice Spanish! :) I had been a little worried that my Spanish would be too rusty to resurrect, since I hadn’t spoken it since I went to Costa Rica in 2004, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much of it came back to me. In fact, I often found myself in the somewhat bizarre situation of acting as a translator between the cholos and other volunteers, since many of them spoke no Spanish at all! It was quite amusing. At the time I was there, there were between 16-24 volunteers, from the US, Canada, England, Scotland, Germany, Holland, and Wales.

I was pleasantly surprised to find flush toilets and running water at the station, and wonderful outdoor showers - each enclosed in a bamboo cubicle, complete with shelves for toiletries, hooks for towels, and a pipe that released a steady stream of refreshingly cool water - trust me, at the end of a hard day's work in the tropics, you realize how overrated hot showers are. The only downside of showering was that the first thing you had to do when you got back to your room all fresh and clean was to slather on the insect repellent. We used LOTS of insect repellent. I was extremely grateful that my work pants were cargo pants, because I kept my repellent in one side pocket and my calamine lotion in the other at all times. Everybody got used to being slapped at any moment, when somebody else saw a mosquito land. One afternoon, I saw a new volunteer arriving and walked over to say hi. I had intended to introduce myself and shake her hand, but I saw a mosquito on her cheek, so I slapped her in the face instead. Somewhat horrified at my rudeness, I quickly apologized: “Sorry. You’ll get used to people slapping you here. My name’s Lacey, what’s yours?” She took it quite well.

Speaking of mosquitoes, let's get all the bugs and critters out of the way. Daytime mosquitoes, called carmelitas in honor of the woman who introduced them to the island (along with the mora, or blackberry - her name is understandably cursed on San Cristóbal), whose bites don't itch, but leave small bloody spots all over any patch of skin they can reach. They are attracted to dark clothing. Nighttime mosquitoes, who leave angry, itchy welts and will eat you alive if you're unfortunate enough to trap one in your mosquito net at night. HUGE spiders, many with HUGE egg sacks, that build beautiful webs and like to hang out in the toilets with the equally huge cockroaches. Moths, which are attracted to the light and flutter about sometimes looking like fairies in the candlelight. I once found a moth in the toilet (by which I mean bathroom) with a wingspan as large as the widest I can spread my pinky and thumb. Rats, which will scurry about the old house seeking out any food that hasn't been taken to the "safe drawer" in the kitchen. Centipedes galore, which will happily populate a neglected pair of boots over the weekend, and which like to hang out on the washing stone.

The Work
Our daily schedule was quite reasonable:
7:00 breakfast
8:00-10:00 work
10:00-10:30 juice break
10:30-12:00 work
12:00-2:00 lunch and siesta
2:00-4:00 work
6:00 dinner

On the surface, it doesn't seem like those small chunks of time are enough to actually get anything done - but, believe me, people were ready for those breaks! I don't think most of the volunteers were really used to hard physical labor. I was in heaven. :) There were four main areas of work: deforestation, reforestation, production and construction. Here's a brief snapshot of each:

Two words: Machete. Hoe. We hacked a lot of mora, grasses, and other invasive species with machetes, then went back and hoed up the roots. Unfortunately, the machete was the one tool I did not have a natural knack for - a shortcoming that was made all the more obvious by the admiration I received for my shoveling and hoeing and pick-axing. Ah, well. I suppose one can’t be good at everything. Paúl was the cholo in charge of most of the deforestation. He’s 17, and extremely skilled with machete and hoe– he just strokes the ground and the weeds fly up effortlessly – it’s amazing to watch, especially compared to the clumsy, blundering hacking and chopping of most of the volunteers. He called his work crews mis tigres and told us to never say ”no puedo”.

This involved everything from gathering dirt in burlap sacks and carrying it up the hill to the nursery, to filling small plastic bags with dirt for seeds, to starting seeds and cuttings, to digging holes and planting the young native plants. Mostly pretty mellow work, apart from the hauling of burlap sacks full of wet dirt (and occasionally fire ants) up steep muddy hills. I earned a reputation for being a fast hole-digger – I guess my ditch-digging days at the Lab paid off. :)

The reserve tries to grow whatever food it can, and has a couple of "plantations" to facilitate this. It's mostly tomatoes and peppers (which we harvested in astonishing quantities), with some eggplants, melons, pineapples, bananas, papayas, and a few other food crops. Eduardo (one of the cholos) instructed us to weed the crop rows with machetes, but I found that a bit ridiculous (it was mostly just clumps of grass, after all) and instead pulled the weeds by hand.

A side note on the food. Chris, our cook, is a professional chef from the US (he happens to be married to the volunteer coordinator, who is Ecuadorian, which is how I think he got the job). He sometimes got a bad rap among the volunteers for being grumpy, but I was quite impressed with his resourcefulness and skill in feeding all of us. Apart from what is grown on the reserve and the island, all of the food is supplied by three food ships from the mainland, which come once a month. Recently, one of the ships broke. You never know quite what’s going to be available at any given time. So Chris sends his shopping list into town, and when the taxi comes back with the groceries, he finds out how many of the items on the list aren’t there, then sets about figuring out how to make due with the ones that are. He has never once gotten everything on his list. But the food was always good, and generally plentiful.

When I arrived at the station, half of the ground floor of the old house was a shell of open, unused rooms. One of the projects we started was converting this space into new rooms for volunteers and other visiting groups. We cleared a lot of the old material and made a huge burn pile of worn out wood and bamboo, somewhat worryingly close to the house – and then proceeded to burn it in the full heat of the day when we were all working alongside it. I didn’t quite understand the logic behind that, but no harm was done, other than leaving a persistent smoky scent behind in the volunteers’ rooms that were directly above the burn pile.

Most of my participation in the construction project involved following Pepo (one of the cholos) into the woods with his chainsaw, finding trees to cut down, and then hauling the logs up long, steep, muddy hillsides to the house. Some of the logs were manageable by one person (if barely!), and some took 4-5 people to carry them – not an easy feat when trudging uphill with uneven and slippery footing! I think we each lost about an inch in height and had the tops of our shoulders bruised from carrying the logs. The smaller logs were cut and prepped at the reserve, and the larger ones were sent to town to be planed and cut. Then we set about constructing new rooms, which involved such adventures as standing on precariously balanced bits of rock and concrete to nail high planks in place, and sawing off a set of stairs that I had been under the impression had been functioning to hold up a landing.

The Fun
The work was hard, which made the fun all the more fun. The path that led to the tomato plantation had a fork that led to a lovely little lagoon with a waterfall, where we would sometimes go to swim after work. We would just chuck our crates of tomatoes and tools and logs at the side of the path on our way up and head to the waterfall, jumping in in our work clothes – Eduardo even dove in with his wellies on! It was wonderfully refreshing, and a fine way to wash our filthy clothes at the same time. Sometimes people would play soccer or volleyball after work, but that always seemed like too much effort to me, so I mostly watched, and donated my water bottle for a goal post.

I learned to play a fantastic Ecuadorian card game called Cuarenta. It took a while, because the cholos kept telling me it was easy and all I had to do was watch, but they played it so fast and there are so many rules that I couldn’t keep track of it for the life of me. Finally Chris sat down and explained it, and I worked with him to write up a set of rules so I can remember it and teach people back home. The rules are specific to the Jatun Sacha station on San Cristóbal, however, since regional variations abound. I don’t know that I ever won a game while I was there, but it was still fun to play.

Fridays weren’t really work days, but hiking days, where one of the cholos or a local guide would lead a caminata to one or more sites of interest. On my first Friday we hiked (for four hours, in wellies) to La Galapaguera, a giant tortoise preserve, and then to La Playa Puerto Chino, supposedly the most beautiful beach on the island, with the finest white sand imaginable. It poured all day. By the time our guide rushed us through the trails at La Galapaguera we were soaked to the bone. (I was highly amused at one of the informational plaques along the path, which began: “Despite the dryness…”) On the way to the beach, the path became a stream – apparently the real stream flowing to the sea wasn’t enough, and the water wanted to use our path as well. When we finally reached the beach, we deposited our backpacks and shoes on a rock near the delta, waded across the stream, which was about a foot and a half deep, and walked into the sea with all of our clothes on. We had a fantastic time frolicking in the sea in the pouring rain for about an hour, then looked back at the stream and realized that it had become a raging river… and that all of our stuff was on the other side… and that the rock upon which we had deposited it was in danger of being submerged... and that the current was too strong to get safely across. Fortunately, by that time the rain had pretty much stopped, so we waited about half an hour and then were able to wade into the sea and cross the delta, then wade back up the opposite side of the river to rescue our backpacks. Amazingly, all that was lost was one of Charlie’s flip-flops. But I found a frisbee, so it kind of equaled out (though Charlie didn’t agree).

One of the unexpected and amusing things about being out at an ecological reserve in the middle of nowhere was that there was a bar just up the road from the station (called Bar Los Tres Palos). It was owned by one of the neighbors, and existed pretty much entirely to serve the station volunteers, since it was so far out that nobody else (other than a few other neighbors) could realistically get there. A group of volunteers went a couple of times a week, especially when it was somebody’s last night. I was a bit apprehensive about going, since I’m not a “bar person,” but I had promised Nicole I would go for her last night, so I did. The walk to the bar is about 8 minutes, but Eduardo and Pepo and I took about 20 minutes to get there that night, because it was a clear night and all I wanted to do was look at the amazing abundance of stars overhead, and they were tolerant enough to indulge me and walk slowly while I oohed and aahed. My first glimpse of the bar was an all-senses experience. We came at it from a path from the road, coming up over a hill to see the bar on a level field, with a magnificent view of the night sky. The bar was open on three sides, spilling soft yellow light onto the dark ground, the sound of latin music punctuated by the clack of pool balls, the smell of popcorn wafting into the night. I ended up having a really good time hanging out and playing pool. The walk back home took about 45 minutes, because the stars were even more beautiful and plentiful, and it’s slow going walking on a rutted road when you’re looking at the sky. :)

All of the cholos and other volunteers were wonderful people, and it was fun just to hang out in the kitchen or in the hammocks at the old house and chat with folks. We did a bit of whale watching from the porch of the old house one clear afternoon. All we could really see were black lines on the surface of the ocean, so we had some good-natured arguments about whether they were actually whales or just waves, but we finally agreed that there were indeed whales. One night Nicole held a candlelight poetry reading at the old house, which was quite mellow and fun. Siesta time often found the hammocks filled with journaling or napping volunteers, enjoying companionable silence. After dinner people would play cards and sometimes play music (guitars and drums or juice jugs) and/or sing. We had a challenging time finding songs that the majority of people knew – Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car failed the test because nobody could carry it, but Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl and The Proclaimer’s 500 Miles passed.

The Conclusion (Not the End)
I want to go back. Of course I want to go back. I was just starting to feel like I was settling in, getting to the point where I felt like my work was making a difference, when I had to leave. I loved living so far from everything, washing my clothes on the washing stone, taking cold outdoor showers, marveling at the millions of stars, hearing the rain pounding so hard on the corrugated tin roof of the kitchen that you had to shout to be heard, taking afternoon siestas in the hammocks, listening to the roosters in the morning, the birds during the day, and the insects at night, working until I thought I would drop but never getting sore, sharing experiences with people from all over the world in different languages, feeling like I could be utterly and completely me in every moment. I still find myself looking at my clock and thinking, “they’re gathering for work right now – I wonder what they’ll do today,” or “the siesta is almost over – time to rouse for the afternoon’s work,” or “I wonder if people are going to the bar tonight.”

There are many reasons I want to go back to Ecuador and San Cristóbal. I may blog about them at a later date, but for now I’ll just say I want to go back – and I intend to go back. My quest now is to find an organization with which I can volunteer or work long-term, that will pay my way for me so I don’t break the bank doing it on my own. If you have any ideas, either for organizations doing the work or providing grant money, please share. I’m open to ideas from pretty much anywhere in Central or South America, actually, though my heart and thoughts are in Ecuador at the moment.

I told you this would be long. :) And there are plenty more stories to tell. For now, I’ll close with the poem that came to me on the taxi ride from the station as I left to fly back to the mainland.

It hit me when we hit the pavement:
I’m leaving the Galápagos
and I’m not done yet.
As we left the dirt road and Jatun Sacha behind
a wave of loss overtook me.
I wanted to cry, turn back, turn back,
I’ve left my heart behind
in the soil and the scalesia and the seeds that stick,
in the mora and the machetes,
in the water and the washing stone,
in the sweat and the strain and the siesta.
But we kept on driving
and I pretended that my tears came from the wind.