Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hay Sueltos? (Got Change?)

$20 bills can be a liability in these parts. I can’t tell how much is undercapitalized enterprises and how much is just “the way it’s done” but having small denominations on hand is a chronic struggle. Sacagawea dollar coins are the best, easy to handle, big enough to get something done, small enough to avoid a crisis.

For a $6 bus fare I gave the helper a twenty. He rustled around in his pockets, shook his head and asked if I had any change. “No, but I can wait a while,” I replied, since we had a two hour ride to collect small bills. About an hour later I saw (my) twenty-dollar bill go out the window to pay a $2 road toll. The lady in the booth rolled her eyes and starting handing over the change. I got mine soon thereafter.

On another bus trip, I watched one of the food vendors hassling his colleague for change for a dollar, for a customer who’d bought 50 cents of cookies. Took a while but the 50-cent pieces finally got handed over.

I remember in the US frantically digging in my pockets to come up with change to avoid getting 85 cents back in coins. Here, the stores take it the other way. I fronted a $20 for a $16.25 grocery bill, and the checker wanted to know if I had $1.25 on hand. I remember this feeling from college days. Squirreling away quarters to have enough to do laundry when the time came.

Today I waited about 5 minutes beside a bucket of strawberries on the sidewalk. These were some really nice berries. The women eating from a bag of them nearby was waiting for her change. After a notable wait, the fellow came trotting back around the corner with 8 quarters of change for her, just in time for me to pay him $2, exactly.

A famer might start the day in the market with no change on hand. A bakery might have some quarters and 10 ones in the drawer by midafternoon. I ended up with a $3 internet bill, and only a $20 in my pocket. The attendant slipped out the side door and down the street to get change. When the same thing happened the next week, I offered to go for the change myself, to the Banco del Austro 8 doors down. The guard stopped me on the way in, “Whaddya want?” (in Spanish but you get the message)
“I need to get some change.”
“For a HUNDRED.”
“No, just for a twenty.”
“Oh, OK, go on in.”
Am I to understand that even the banks are short around here? KD

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Here's Jim...

Paul met me at the Quito airport and we went to our hotel where we spent two nights. We stayed in the “old city” which is the colonial remnant of the Spanish conquest. We spent an entire day taking in the churches - opulent but beautiful. The Jesuit church contains over 40 kilos of gold leaf decoration. With the modest level of the economy, that strikes me as grossly inappropriate, but such is the case I imagine in many Latin American countries. We are enjoying the local food – being an omnivore, as I am, helps!
A two-hour bus ride took us to Otavalo, where Paul and Kristen and the girls have an apartment for six months. As I sit here looking out at the local buildings, I see modest structures, some in great disrepair. Last night Paul and Kristen hosted a pizza (yes, pizza) party for about 20 local people, nearly all of whom are native people (indigenous descendants of the Incas). The natives speak Quichua, the old language, as well as Spanish. Speaking neither makes it difficult for me to communicate. However, the people who came were so gracious that it really didn’t matter. It was a joy to be with them and to get a sense of their gentle and loving approach to life. Smiles and touches communicate a great deal. Later last night, Julio, one of the guests, took Paul and me to the closing ceremonies of the local soccer season. Paul and I were the only non-natives there , and it was a wonderful expression of acceptance that we were included. It reminded me of an experience years ago when another white man and I were included in an otherwise all Black party. ( This was during Civil Rights times). One’s experience of another group is totally different from the inside-out. I look forward to the (all too short) rest of my time here. I salute Paul and Kristen and Althea and Rosalie for undertaking this adventure.



Just back from Quito picking up our first transcontinental visitor – big shout out to my Dad for making the journey down. We had a great day poking around Quito’s churches and plazas and getting sprayed with foam by exuberant Carneval celebrators. Finished off with dinner on a 6th floor rooftop staring straight up at Orion - who sits overhead at this latitude –and enjoying the lights on the Basilica and Cathedral and la Compan~ia. Super.

And we bussed both ways. First, let me be clear that the bus system here, and throughout the world, simply makes the US’s look juvenile and woeful deficient. The transportation network in the States is that we each have our car and we drive it places. The network here is that there are buses that go everywhere – city or village – frequently and everyone takes them. Some of the details of the operation of the system are, however, amusing and imperfect. Each driver owns his own bus. So the costs are fixed – he drives to Quito and pays for his gas and maintenance. The revenue comes from each passenger. So his incentive is to fill his bus. This leads to the humorous and confusing situation of drivers hawking their services – sometimes two drivers next to each other are shouting at you “Quito, Quito, Quito, Quito!” If you think the purpose is to provide the passenger with the fastest/soonest/most pleasant ride to Quito, this can be confusing. Understanding the ownership model helps to clarify. Secondly, once you enter the bus, you cease to be the valuable customer. There is no incentive to get the onboard customers to the destination quickly; rather, the target customer is the next paying passenger. This leads to the suboptimal situation of a bus full of people slamming to a halt, frequently, along the PanAmerican highway to pick someone up at a curb. Slow. This behavior led to our 5-whoops-no-7 hour trip up from Banos. Of course, the ticket agent in Banos raved about how this bus was such a good deal for us because it skipped Quito on a loop road and avoided the city traffic. Yea, and stopped every damn half mile to pick up another paying fare. So, in summary, the perfect bus experience is where the seat next to you is empty, but all the others are full so the driver doesn’t stop all the dang time. Parenthetically, in Mexico (at least), there are limited access busses for which you pay a premium (more than, say, the $1/hour it costs here) and the bus doesn’t stop as often. Not so available here.

All well. P.

And, our first guest columnist: Dad Blackburn. Welcome, Jim!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Big Time !

Well, one of us bloggers just got externally published. Visit to see KD´s blog entry on the Planet Money website. Very fun. I´m jealous. P

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The jungle

Amazing, damp, gritty, stunning, thrilling, buggy, slutty. All adjectives that spring to mind for our 10 days just completed in the Amazon jungle. We descended as low as 1000 feet of elevation on the Rio Napo, with about 1500 river miles left before the mouth of the Amazon in the Atlantic. It’s been a dream of mine for 30 years to see some of it, and now we have. Hooray!

Some of the good, bad and ugly of the trip: One nice thing about the jungle is it’s nice and hot. Our intown hotel had a pool.

We were definitely the local color on the bus from town towards the jungle lodge.

(minding the bags at the scenic Tena bus station. Icky.)

Loading up on the canoe …

… with our wonderful guide Freddie (our Spanish pays off again. Freddy speaks Kichwa and Spanish). He took us touring, swimming and tubing in the river.

We canoed to an animal rescue spot: toucan, capybara, ocelot, jaguarindo, macaw, peccary, anaconda, hooray! Sweet as pie log book entry.

Rosie’s poor calves beckoned the no-see-ums (we were able to ward off the (malaria-carrying) mosquitos with repellent, but the tiny gnats seemed immune).

Ro with an improbably huge fruit (guaba) that we watched Freddy's cousin scramble up a tree to pluck with a tool constructed on-the-spot from a pole, a branch and several palm strands.

We all tried our hand at the blowgun and Rosie brought home the parrot with her dart.

A great voyage, glad to be home (the busride last night was supposed to the 5 hours, it was 7. Oof.)

All well. P

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Back from the jungle

Mostly just a smoke signal that we´re not in a ditch somewhere. Just out of the Amazon where we spent a week in a gritty, skanky town (Tena), then two great days in a remote jungle lodge where we visited some locals, swam and tubed in a main Amazon River tributary (Rio Napo), and toured the environs by motorized canoe. Watched our new friends harvest papaya, guaba, cacao, yucca, chiles, and herbs the old fashioned way (some of which means shinnying up the tree), tested our skills with a blowgun (Rosie and I both brought home the parrot), checked out the upper stretches of that gigantic rainforest. Wow.

Now in BaƱos, which is a lot like Telluride (actually Ouray for those familiar) and is quite beautiful. The gnat bites are scabbing over, stomachs settling, clothes drying out, hot springs restorative. All well, home on the bus tomorrow. Pictures soon. P

Sunday, February 8, 2009

El banjo y el tio

Fun day at Panecillo school. I´m shepherding through a visa application for a Tandana volunteer and needed some signed letters from the director of the school. Last time up there, some students had invited me to come sit in on English class, so I did. Our new friend Kent (we´ve dubbed him Tio (uncle) Kento) and I bussed up, did our work (see photo,¨"This Land is Your Land" was a hit), and then walked down to the bus stop. While waiting, a passing pickup took us on (photo) and refused our payment offer. Fun.

Another day el Tio and I biked out to the medical clinic where Kent´s project is centered. When there´s a friend to ride with, there can be pictures of me on the blog! Also very fun.

And Kent turned 25 on Thursday, so we feted him at breakfast (with a rousing "Happy Birthday" and a candle in a stale roll) and at a fancy dinner (photo). Very fun for all, including the girls having a 4th person to speak English to.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The apartment

Took a few photos up and down the street to try to give a sense of what it’s like here on the northeastern edge of Otavalo. Nice quiet street, eg no busses or barking dogs or roosters immediately adjacent. The first shot shows two prominent neighbors: the vulcanizadoro (tire fixing guy) with the truck parked out front getting help, and across the street that tiny awning is where the elderly woman has a huge skillet simmering every single day. Not sure it’s public, but I dropped in for lunch one day and met the folks. The contents are, pause for emphasis, the same every single day. That family (including the automechanic shop out back and its workers) eats the same lunch every single day. That is, no joke, a big part of living the low-consumption reality here – tolerance of sameness. I can’t imagine eating it every day, though it was yummy the once I had it. Papas con cuero (Potatoes with leather, ie pigskin) over rice. She asked if I wanted the $1 or the $2 plate, I said $2. I think if I had said $1 she would have fished out only potatoes and left the skin in the pan. With a 7 oz Coke. Real life.

Other shot shows the 1.5 blocks before the street ends in a steep lane which quickly becomes dirt – great local hiking. And the backside is this vacant lot which today contains 3 cows grazing (I guess the zoning must be Cow-3), other days smooching teens or goats. Quiet, lovely. P


Recently learned that Ecuador has more species in it than North America and Europe combined. Some quick research tells me that this means the density of biodiversity here is at least 175x that of those two continents. Cool! Heading to the Amazon this weekend to see some more of it for ourselves. Hoping to do some some piranha fishing – toss in a chunk of meat on a string, watch for the swarm.

All well, thanks for reading. P

Soccer tourney continued

Turns out the girls school has a team, and they were pretty excited to invite KD to play. See photos of #15 making an impact (and she scored a goal!)And the girls were doing some fine net rat work between halves. Hooray for our little local tourney, wraps up this weekend. P


That’s all I can say about this. I made friends with a shopkeeper down our block and he invited me to come to visit his community this weekend because they were having a tournament of an “ancient game”. I asked around a bit and everyone assumed he meant soccer, no one had ever heard of any ancient sports or similar.

So I went. And, in fact, there in a wide place in the street, these folks were staging the first (it appears ever) tournament reviving this game which has been a traditional kids game for the natives for many years. I’ll tell you what; I just squinted my eyes a bit and pretended I was on the ancient Maya ball court at Chichen Itza (which I have seen in ruins). I think this is an ancient game that was played way the heck back when that has sort of survived and is now being resurrected. This was an amazing, holy, brilliant, community-organizing type moment. A group of folks is attempting to enhance their traditional culture by promoting/passing on this sport. Wonderful.

Several different matches of 7 on 7 were played of Jierbis (he UR bis). The game focuses on stacking 20 shards of a brick, like beefy poker chips. This must be accomplished while the “monkey in the middle” and “Dodge ball” components are being carried out all around you. The ball is foamy, like a soft softball, and you whing it at people to get them out, if they catch it you’re out, etc. It’s got lots of elements, including a cricket-like element of trying to knock over the towers. It was great.

Thanks to Julio of Aluman for the tour. P

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