The sounds of early morning roosters brought disgruntled Americans to the breakfast table. Still unaccustomed to the time difference, humid heat, and trying to fend off the jet lag, we all were a sorry bunch of ‘workers’. Hermania had prepared Tom’s favorite – deep fried empanada pancakes filled with a bland, undistinguished cheese of sorts. What was perhaps one of their finest offerings, made our group’s appetite cringe and go cowering off in the corner to their secret hoard of Clif Bars. I felt ashamed to be associated with such picky, ungracious eaters and ate most of what was given to me – trans fats and all. I too, of course eventually broke down after countless dishes of constipating starches and deep friedness, and resorted to the post-meal banana with peanut butter. After all, if my arteries had a say in the matter, would they favor my unwavering etiquette or thank me for my subtle attempts at avoiding tribal fast food?
Ah, the magic of peanut butter, where would we lost travelers be without you? So far from home with only one jar to spare, sharing your strength, how on earth will we fair?
It was Tom’s idea to pack an extra large jar of Jiff, possibly the best decision of our entire trip. Bananas grew conveniently right outside our front door, which led to the inevitable discovery of ‘afternoon deliiight.’ We learned that by cutting the bananas into thin slices, we could smother them with ample peanut butter and top them off with tender pasas (large raisins with the texture of dried apricots). Truly a treat to be savored in the privacy of our cabana, far below the vast clutches of the almighty deep-frying pot. But I digress.
After washing down our empanadas with a tepid batch of Nescafe con azucar and thanking Marioxi for her hospitality, she shooed us off with her husband to catch our bus on time, coinciding with the first real downpour of our trip. We jumped on the soggy bus and were crammed in like slippery sardines by the bus boy, who then luxuriously rode hanging off the side of the bus – fresh air blasting his face, happy as a dog with his head out the window of a speeding car. The rest of us weren’t quite so lucky. Crammed in 6 per row and 30+ standing down the aisle, we quickly got to know each other, and our local neighbors, on a whole new level.
Fact: Ecuador is hot.
Fact: Buses are crowded.
Fact: Deodorant is expensive.
Why do I point out the obvious? Because the conclusion is devastating for someone with the nose of a bloodhound. I could overcome the starchy food, easy. I could learn to enjoy the flavor of boiled river water with strange floaters and the aftertaste of charcoal, piece of cake. By the end of my stay, I could even eat salty fish eyes without a flinch. But for the life of me, I could never get over the smell of South American buses.
When we arrived at the school grounds, children flocked around us in a flurry of laughter and whispering curiosity. My bright green crocks proved to be highly entertaining, as did Kathy in her REI ‘jungle hat’. As our seasoned project manager, 15 years the wiser, she sported the keenest preventive measures against sunburn, Malaria, and other joys of the jungle. The 5 of us, accompanied by Alfonso, congregated in one of the small school buildings to meet with the principal and Yanapuma representatives to discuss our construction plans.
What we had been designing for the past 6 months, was to be a composting toilet system that would relieve the current western toilets from overflow. Already at capacity, the government installed septic tank was built without a drain which forced all excessive excrement to flow up through the ground and run down the hill onto the soccer field. You can imagine the lingering stench that arises in the damp heat, not to mention brewing the ideal conditions for a breeding ground of parasites and bacterium.
After showing our counterparts the construction plans and sketches, the principal took us outside to unveil the stockpile of concrete supplies Yanapuma had been accumulating for our project. From the edge of the hill we looked down at the countless pile of bricks that awaited our motive force.
A broken wheelbarrow. Several old shovels. A pile of rusting rebar.
Our meager arrangement of equipment seemed futile against the daunting work that lay ahead. And we had a tight deadline of 2 weeks – granted that Yanapuma partners would help finish up any remaining work. Just when we were about to wrap our head around the situation, Ayn, our water resource engineer, chimed up, “Hey guys, these blocks are definitely not 8×8.” Then Kathy noted, “Ummmm, yeah…. this rebar looks like the wrong size.”
Steering the project in a new direction was not part of the plan. But we were Engineers, damn it. We solved problems for a living. We were impervious to negativity. We had a cause. We were brilliant.
We were screwed.
Our entire construction plan set would have to be reconsidered. With the modifications to account for difference in material properties, we would face the possibility of running out of supplies. With only 2 weeks to make the revisions, we were short on time; with only 4 EWB people and a squadron of high school students from the Yanapuma program, we were short on brains; and with only volunteer donations from our Portland fundraiser office we were short on money.
We returned to base camp that evening feeling slightly discouraged after a day of squabbling amongst ourselves to assess the situation. Tom and I explained our conclusions to Alfonso, who nodded but hardly seemed fazed. In Ecuador, it is simply another day, like any other. Full of problems, full of hopelessness. To an American, it is a challenge to overcome. And we did, day by day.
Our spirits were raised at the prospect of a chicken dinner. We recognized the significance of being served an expensive meat with our meal – I wondered which bird we heard earlier that morning had bit the dust. It was delicious. Simmered in a yucca soup, the meat was tender to the bone, and, for the American label whores, laughably ‘organic’. Our moods had elevated throughout the evening, but peaked when we were joined by a special guest at the dinner table. Their oldest daughter, Isabel, came waddling out of the kitchen with a furry companion dangling from her two extending pointer fingers. Squealing with delight, we all laughed at the sight of their clearly domesticated oso perezoso – as seen on National Geographic, the Bradypus variegatus.
The three toed sloth.
You can see by our friend’s posture here, how the Spanish name is all too suitable; perezoso means lazy, oso means bear, thus lazy bear – as they are thought to be a long distant relative to ursus family. Alfonso affectionately calls him Manza Mono, his little monkey friend. He had certainly won our hearts with the simplest beguile. But how can you resist a face like that?