Bahía and Planet Drum

It is interesting how quickly I can fall into a routine and lose all sense of time. We arrived in Bahía two weeks ago but I can barely comprehend that all that time is gone already. It is also funny how I adapted into a new routine so effortlessly. I almost long for when I begin graduate school or a job so that I can ease myself into a familiar and comfortable routine. I suppose it should be reassuring to know steadfastly that I am bound to return to my schooling and not worry that this South American adventure will suck me into a different path. Though only 1.5 months into this year long venture may be too early to be making such exclamations… 🙂
Anyways, we arrived at the Planet Drum house on the evening of the 19th at the end of a group meal. We deposited our belongings into the room we were shown and then sat down to make our introductions. Clay is the Planet Drum coordinator in Bahía de Caraquez where we will be volunteering for a month (crazily half that time is already over!). Clay is from the U.S. but is married to an Ecuadorian, Bahía native, woman named Margarita. They have an adorable two and one half year old son, named Sol. Margarita also has another son, Franco, 14 years old. Clay and family live in the Planet Drum house as long as there are volunteers, but both have property of their own that they rent out. They also have plans to open up a hostel-type place. There were also two volunteers at the table. First, there was Annaliese, 21, about to start her fourth year of university in Washington. She was here all summer, for the most part alone, but with some other volunteers for lesser time periods than herself. Sadly, she actually just left last Thursday, to go back and get ready for school. I am incredibly grateful that she was here the first several days to orient me to Bahía and our volunteer work. Having been here for three months, she divulged the secrets of the market. Where to buy the best peanut butter, cheese and eggs; who gives the fairest prices on vegetables; the same for fruits, where to get salprieta (a peanut and spice mixture for eating with cooked maduros, or plantains); which bakery has whole grain rolls, sells whole grain flour, and also will sell yeast!; and where to buy the large water tanks. She directed me to a Mom and Pop specialty grocery store (for things like Nutella, hehe), a laundry mat, the best ice cream, and more. She also explained the workings of the Planet Drum house, how we organize group meals which we take turns cooking, and made introductions for our volunteering efforts. It is always nice to receive the inside scoop on a new place, especially when that place is in another country. After only five quick days, I was sad to see her leave. Annaliese is an incredibly intelligent, down-to-earth girl. I wish we had had more time to get to know each other. The other girl is Alicia, 25, from San Diego, California. She is still here and will be for almost the whole time that Aaron and I are here. Wonderfully, we adopted each other as activity mates. We have initiated runs or ab routines and lounging time at the beach. Running is not a highly participated in activity here in Ecuador, so we are only going on a short four mile loop across the bridge and back from Bahía to San Vicente. We even walk to and from the bridge to minimize the attention our strange behavior brings upon us. The bridge over the river is actually the longest in Ecuador and has a great little pedestrian and cycling path lane built in separated from the vehicles. Despite being only a short jog, it is nice to be physically active on a regular basis. And the beach time provides new color to my pasty skin tone and an enjoyable atmosphere to read. I have already finished six books since arriving and am well into the seventh. There is a bookshelf full of books located next to my bed. I am fully planning to take advantage of this access to books and read as many as possible over the next month! Back to the first train of thought, Alicia and I seem to get along quite well. She is a fresh set of ears to tell old stories. It is nice to feel an obligation to stay in a regular exercise pattern as well as another person to walk around with. She was a surf instructor back in the States, but is now planning to find a place to settle down in South America and teach English or Art. She has been traveling for almost two months down here all be herself. I think that is a courageous move. A side note on our activities here in Bahía, Aaron has taken up surfing lessons from a local here. He goes out almost everyday. I have not been out to watch, but it sounds as though he is making strong headway. Hopefully surfing is like riding a bicycle because I do not know when we will be near a beach next. I will try to snag some documentation of this venture.
The Planet Drum organization (http://www.planetdrum.org) started in the bay area of California with the late Peter Berg, who envisioned bioregions where everyone “attempts to harmonize in a sustainable way with the place where they live.” I just finished reading his book on these sustainability concepts. He passed away a couple months ago, but he used to come to Bahía with his wife once or twice a year to check on the projects here. In Bahía, a big part of the organization is to establish sustainable living in the community as well as mediate damages procured to the mountainsides after the 1999 flooding and earthquake disasters which resulted in a large landslide, building collapses, and many deaths. Planet Drum has been replanting these areas while incorporating the cooperation and involvement of the community to create a self-sustaining land use practices. They have also been working with local groups to raise awareness and implement other programs for forest restoration. In Bahía, there is a house for volunteers to live in while working here. It is provided very cheaply with Clay as the caretaker of sorts for the house and volunteer activities. There is one local Ecuadorian man, Orlando, who goes out with us everyday on our projects. He has been a major asset in the foundation´s ability to connect with the local community. Outside of Planet Drum, Orlando is actually involved with lots of programs related to these activities. Most notably, he helped (and helps) his friend, Ramón, a teacher at the local High School, create and establish a green house for the children to take a part in. Also, Ramón and Orlando are planning to establish an organic garden at the green house to open a restuarant in Bahía that will provide healthy food options, mostly vegetarian, and all organic. I know that Ramón is friends with a Peace Corps guy here who has established a soy milk and soy meat business in his campo, or small village. These men are really wonderful people and always try to get really involved with the volunteer people from Planet Drum and any other organizations in the area. Orlando is also helping me improve my Spanish by always correcting my errors and requiring me to speak accurately and with whole sentences. In return I am providing him with useful vocabulary and phrases in English, as well as proper pronunciations of the words. Though I am convinced that he actually actively studies English while I am not as diligent of a student.
On that first Friday evening that we arrived, everyone was eating supper. We sat down and joined them as they finished up. Then this guy Parker showed up. He was stationed at San Vicente with the PeaceCorps. A bunch of PeaceCorps people from this region of Ecuador were in Bahía that night to spend the weekend together. There were around ten or so, and they had all gone to supper. Having already eaten, Parker came to the Planet Drum house to see if Annaliese wanted to join the festivities. He ended up with all four of us volunteers in tow. We went to the house of Ricky, another PeaceCorps person who lives a few blocks from the Planet Drum house. They were all celebrating a reunion and gathering of fellow PeaceCorps people. It was interesting and fun to meet these people. What was most interesting to me was how they perceive PeaceCorps in Ecuador. Of the ten, only one felt that her presence had a significant positive impact to the community she is positioned in, and she has been there just over a year. The rest did not seem as solid in their prospects. Though it is clear that some of them are clearly being taken advantage of. For example, one stationed here in Bahía is working for the environmental agency but they are not interested in created programs nor are they interested in supporting him create his own program, so he has been reduced to an overqualified office assistant/errand boy. That is certainly discouraging. The attitude is that PeaceCorps wants these people to form their own projects without necessarily providing the means to establish a useful program, without enabling the lasting power for programs after the PeaceCorps member leaves, and, in my opinion, without making sure that the PC member´s time is being used most productively. It is to the point that one of the guys I met actually left that week after only seven months of wasted time when he could have been making a grander difference somewhere else. I know that this circumstance is not the same in all PeaceCorps locations, nor probably in all of Ecuador. In fact, I met a guy last weekend who is out in a small village where he helps make soy products, such as meat substitute and milk. Once the rainy season begins, be plans to start growing his own soy so he knows it is produced in an environmentally sustainable method and without pesticides and other chemicals. Though after the pessimism of the other people and stories I have heard from outside sources, I worry whether this soy business will have the foundation to last.
Back to that first Friday night, I was exhausted since Aaron and I had essentially just gotten off a nine hour bus ride from Quito. All four of us Planet Drum people retired early, but everyone else headed off in search of the beach bonfire party. Apparently it is a common weekend event to find the occassional bonfire extravaganza. The next day, seven of the PeaceCorps people, us four Planet Drum volunteers, and Orlando and Ramón, went out to Ramón´s beach house, referred to as La Gorda (the fat one or fat woman), on Punta La Gorda. It was an overnight camp out because vehicles can only drive out there during low tide once a day. Thus we left Saturday afternoon with swimming suits and food. We relaxed by the beach, played cards, swam, played football, and helped set up the hammocks. We made spaghetti and vegetable sauce for supper. There were two giant pots of the pasta, so needless to say that we did not finish it all. Though it was a nice supplement to breakfast the next morning. There were not a sufficient amount of beds up in the house or hammocks down on the beach for everyone to sleep, so I ended up on the ground in a sheet. Luckily, Ricky let me borrow one of his sheets, otherwise I would not have been bare on the sand, chilly and pestered by insects. Despite that much appreciated luxury, I am a side sleeper and could not quite keep sand mounded to stay comfortable. My good fortune prevailed yet again, as some of the girls woke quite early, allowing me to snag an abandoned hammock for a couple more hours of good sleep. Most of the group went on an early hike, but I used that time to sleep in the hammock. This turned out in my favor as I then had the chance to sit by the fire looking out into the rising sun over the crashing waves in peaceful silence while reading my book and eating grilled maduros (maduro means mature or ripe, but these are actually plantains). I did this until the rest of the group woke then I left for a long walk along the beach to scavenge for interesting beach rocks. My best find: a small, smoothed hunk of red sandstone with several dozen bore holes left most likely by lithophagus bivalves that were further covered by twisted tubes of encrusting polychaetes (marine annelid worms). There are several other cool rocks, but that was my favorite. One of the bore holes even has the definition of the hinge where the two shells meet on the bivalve. Later I went swimming again. The water here is always at a perfect slightly warm temperature, even if the weather is a little cooler.
The truck that took us out was supposed to return to pick us up, however it failed to come. We ended up walking the 8 miles back along the beach. With all the food and water, we would not have been able to walk there very easily, but the trip back was nice. I walked barefoot the whole way (though this resulted in some very tired feet). After returning to Bahía, I finally showered and unpacked my bags to settle into the Planet Drum house.Aaron and I have two little beds in our own room. There is a bar angled across a corner for a closet beam and the top of the bookshelf to set my things on. As I mentioned, there is a bookshelf next to my bed that is filled with books. I made a pile of books I want to read, though there are plenty more that I would read given more time. The bookshelf is piled double deep and there are random piles spread across the house. The house is actually more like an apartment on the second floor over clothing and window painting shops. There are seven beds across three rooms for volunteers, as well as the room Clay and family live in. There is a wide open middle section with the volunteer bathroom and Clay´s office area are located. Then there is a kitchen and back room where Clay and Margarita´s bathroom and laundry room are. Finally, there is a large room on the front half of the apartment where the eating area has a long wooden table and benches on both sides. This room is separated by a tall column and two high arches to the living room area that has two couches and a chair. There are many 8 foot tall, green slatted, shuttered windows all around the house. These have no glass and are always left open. There are also little balconies leading out from each window. All the ceilings are about 12 feet tall, the walls are painted white, the doors and doorways painted green, and wood floors. The two open sides of the house face north and east. I really do no justice to the true ambiance of the house. I am quite infatuated with the place. Not to mention how comfortingly open everything is. People can see in from the street and you can literally see through the cracks in the floor. The views out the windows are like looking over a romantic scene of decaying buildings on a partitioned beach town boulevard road, with the hustling noises of life down below. It is quaint and worn, yet homey and warm. I fail to fully explain the utter mess and chaos of everything while taking in its rustic beauty. There will be many photos taken in an attempt to capture its essence. We are a five minute walk from the river and a ten minute walk from the beach. We are away from the busy tourist areas and just set back from the market, so there is a constant stream of noises but not nearly as loud as other areas. The market in Bahía is the best I have yet come across. It is open everyday and has just about everything you could want from fresh spices to fruits and vegetables to fresh cow milk and cheese to pasta to flour and sugar to homemade peanut to beans and so much more. The prices are amazing if you buy local (which is just about everything you could want in terms of produce). An example is that I can buy three bananas (called guineos) for about 15 cents, 50 maduros (plantains) for 25 cents, three mandarins for 20 cents, and 10 potatoes for less than one dollar. The market opens between five and six in the morning and starts closing down between one and two in the afternoon. Also the bakeries are open for long hours daily except for a lunch break. Combined with the specialty grocery store, Yanina, I have everything I could ask for. Of course this is nothing like a U.S. grocery store, but I have still managed to make a variety of meals.
The last two weeks of volunteer work and activities have also been wonderful. The first week we went to the green house with is located in the back of the Christian University. Planet Drum has trees growing in beds that are eventually transferred into individual containers. The containers are made from large plastic soda bottles. We cut the tops off and then add slits for water in the bottom, as well as remove all the plastic labels. About 100 planters are grouped into plastic lined corrals and allowed to grow for seven or more months before being planted during the rainy season in December. They are planted in fertile compost soil and pampered with a regular supply of water to quench a growing plant´s thirst. That first day we went to work preparing these plastic containers. We situated ourselves between the cut and uncut bottles with knives in our hands and went to work. This is an easy enough job until you think about doing it for several hours with a seemingly unlimited supply of bottles. Also, the bottles are not exactly clean. We collect them from people´s trash by walking around town, so there is an untold amount of potential surprises with each new bottle. This includes liquids still present, bees and flies found inside the bottles be they dead or alive, weird mold smells and growths, and maybe even a putrid, moldy animal decaying within… Also, there seems to be an endless supply of bees to accumulate around the freshly exposed sugar residues from the soda. We are not picky about which bottle we collect as long as the bottle can stand up. Though we are avoiding bottles filled with mysteriously yellow fluids. The unearthly squealing of knife on plastic while cutting is an added bonus to this task. That first Tuesday, we went around Bahía collecting bottles.We literally take a supply of empty sacks and collect bottles as we walk around. The community has taken an interest and some people will collect piles for us to take. However, we also go to empty lots along the roads where people dump their trash and look for loose bottles. It is sadly a common site to see people discard waste out their vehicle windows or drops whole bags on the side of the road, despite the fact that the city does come around early in the mornings to collect trash outside people´s homes. I repeat my previous statement about U.S. people taking for granted how clean and nicely kept our cities are in comparison. Tuesday we also discovered a place to purchase chocolate covered frozen bananas, called empastadas. We have been back a few times. 🙂 We were back at the greenhouse cutting bottles that Wednesday. I also learned the proper way to prepare the compost soil mixture for the planters. That Wednesday evening we celebrated Annaliese´s last night in Bahía. Clay made a soup called biche, which is a delicious combination of peanut butter sauce and vegetables. I made cinnamon and nutmeg doughnuts. Annaliese made fresh sangria. Everyone ate way to much food and rolled to our beds too late to get enough sleep. Early Thursday morning Annaliese left for Quito and Clay and family all left for Quayaquil. Franco will be there for two weeks, but Clay, Margarita and Sol returned late that same night. Alicia, Aaron and I went to the local high school, Fanny, and helped prepare compost soil then put seedlings into bottles. The next day the Fanny kids came out to our greenhouse and helped us plant seedlings. This week we had about the same schedule except we collected seeds one day. This was fun because they have this long pole with cutters at the end that a rope pulley system is used to make it cut. We collected all the fallen seed pods and then trimmed some out of the trees. We all took turns climbing into the tree with the cutter to reach the higher seed pods. This was an extremely entertaining adventure. Then we had to separate the seeds out of the pods. Everyday we take the 8 KM bus out to the University, it is a stifling 20 cents each way. It is actually only 18 cents but they do not give change, though I have given them exact change on occasion. There is also the occasional bus we catch that only charges 15 cents! Quite the bargain. We are also a grand public attraction as we walk to the bus stop each morning in our dirty clothes with an assortment of bucket, shovel, compost bucket, bags of plastic bottles, and machete. This fact is especially true when considering that very real circumstances that attire determines class in Ecuador. A person may live in a metal shack with dirt floors or a stilted wooden shack, but they will only leave home wearing clean pressed clothes and properly done hair and make-up. You may begin to understand the significance of Alicia´s and my afternoon runs over the bridge. 🙂
Other activities include my success at making granola but utter failure at making yogurt, though my second yogurt attempt at least tastes like yogurt despite the somewhat lacking thickness. I was able to use up the 5 liters of clumpy milk in oatmeal and other baking plots. I also tried to make a country gravy over vegetables and biscuits dish, but this was a near disaster. Between a momentary gelatinous gravy of a yellow-orange color from the sausage grease, a flour explosion that still had powder remnants in my clothes several days later, and biscuits not rising because I somehow turned the oven off mid-baking, it still ended up tasting alright. My next cooking night I made ham and beans soup (minus the ham), cornbread (that did not fully cook in the middle), and chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. Still not a complete success, but again turned out alright. Tuesday is my next cooking day and I am going to make banana bread. There is not temperature gauge on the oven besides that it is hotter towards the bottom and not as hot towards the top. I have found a Pyrex glass pan to try the banana bread in though, so hopefully this time the middle will cook before the bottom burns. One night we had soy burgers, which were excellent. Though all the food has been fantastic, truly. Alicia and I are waiting the arrival of the unsweetened, cinnamon soy milk we asked for. Last weekend we all stayed in Bahía. I gained a nice rosie coloring to my skin. I am trying to even out the starkness of my tan shoulders and incredibly white racer T on my back. It is coming along nicely. Incredibly typical to my always atypical tanning/burning designs that many of you are familiar with, I have even managed lines across my calves where my running pants end and my hiking socks begin. Despite my patchiness, I am slowly evening out. Also, I discovered a delicious combination of avocado blended with milk and something sweet like sugar. It is actually quite tasty, though we later found out that this is used to rejuvenate your energy after sex. Ecuador is incredibly full of sexual innuendos. Luckily we are being informed of them so we can stop making fools of ourselves. This weekend Alicia, Aaron and I went to Canoa, a tourist beach town just an hour north of here. Those two surfed while I read. I may try my hand at surfing before we leave, but I am not super set on it here where the waves are not that great and I would be missing out on valuable reading time. We also hung out with some of the PeaceCorps people who we happened to get on the same bus with coming back from Canoa. I found a cinema here in Bahía that does private showings. You literally pick your own movie and have a legitimate theatre screen and surround sound. We are going to go soon. It is only $3, so definitely worth it.
On a closing note, I am busily working at getting my pictures uploaded so far. I hope to have a select few viewable via facebook sometime this coming week. 🙂

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