Archives for category: Food

It is time to begin, again.  The emergence of spring’s heralds– the crocus, the daffodil, the ornamental cherry blooms in every third yard around Eugene– brings me to anticipate, look up, shake my winter-softened arms out a bit.  It’s been a whole year.  Almost thirteen moons, since I began the last season of watching plants grow and the burst of life run its course.  I revisited my garden journal from 2015 recently and found that I was inventorying seeds, making garden maps for my new beautiful home, purchasing trays and flats and potting soil, and seeding onions at this time in February.  I was re-visiting all my farming practices that I had first learned in this city three years prior, but unlike then, I lacked some of the key elements to start seed this early.

My onions grew ever so slowly, tiny green shoots that lazed by my bedside and reached toward the filtered, too-dim sunlight as it reached past apple tree shadows and spring rainbow storms.  The tiny cabbage sprouts, so eager at first, faced a gradual death as they succumbed to an unknown wilt.  Ah, and the beets!  Direct-seeded outside, they suffered recurrent infestations of life miners, which, I learned by bringing a leaf in to the Master Gardeners next door to my office, were decimating home crops of chard, spinach, and beets all over the county.

Small failures aside, there was a most magnificent burst of life and bounty over the course of our warm spring, dry summer, and even into the golden fall.  I made my first attempt at growing oats, Avena sativa, and fell madly in love with their dancing grains and sea-foam striped stalks.  The birds nearly thwarted them all, but the few that grew from the first and second plantings were well spaced and vibrant, interplanted among four stout Purple Bumblebee cherry tomato plants.

Oh, the tomatoes!  It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to place tiny flat seeds in a few planting trays and, nearly a year later, be relishing bag after bag of frozen garden tomatoes.  This year I grew five varieties: the Purple Bumblebee, which produced few but stunningly flavorful, purple-smeared bitefuls of juicy summertime.  The Woodle Orange won out for flavor, though.  They turned from soft yellow to bright gold when ripe, and I watched the process on our two plants with delight and anticipation of adding thick slices to freshly rinsed salad greens.  For preserving, my favorite was the Jersey Devil, whose seeds I saved carefully for this year.  The tomatoes are long and pointy like peppers, and their uniform ripening and detachable skins won me over as I boiled and peeled gallons and gallons of saucers.  Unfortunately, the majority of my paste tomatoes were of another variety called Sheboygan, which was delicious fresh but is not well suited for processing.  Process aside, I’m grateful for their stamina into the fall and their weight and sweetness in my chest freezer.  Bread and Salt was the last variety: a pink, heart-shaped tomato that was certainly enjoyable, but not memorable enough to save seed.

I jumped ahead; the story of the tomatoes begins months before I had any idea about the fruits.  They sprouted to March’s full moon, folded and skinny, curving up daintily from their cozy potting mix into the dim light behind my sliding glass door.  There is so much hope this time of year: that each plant will thrive, that dreams will coalesce into tangible life, that warmer days will bring freedom and clarity to the fogginess of winter’s routine.  Whatever will grow this year is already germinating in last year’s compost, on the bright surface, deep in the shadows, searching for the light and warmth of another springtime.

 

I finally, finally spent a few minutes taking photos on the farm today.

The rhubarb is alive again, popping forth crinkled leaves from buxom pink buds on the soil surface.  The biggest leaves are the size of my palm, and I find myself wondering how many 2-inch stalks it would take to make a rhubarb pie.  But no, it deserves to grow.

Just downhill from the herb garden, the garlic’s standing proudly.  It came up a while back, after months of wondering and waiting if I’d done something terribly wrong.  It’s a tidy crop, keeping to linear geometry for the most part, for now.  The one love of elephant garlic is the exception, trouncing out at a 75 degree curve from its straw bed.

(The Elephant)

And, to my joy, the plum trees’ buds are swelling greenish white, readying themselves to break.  They’ve had a hard time at life, being alternately pruned, not pruned, watered, not watered, weeded or smothered by lawn.  On some branches, their shoots are so short it’s hard to tell one year’s growth from the next.  We’ve done our best to send them off well this season, at least.  I did my best to encourage some fresh growth this week, snipping and thinning and separating skyward branches with chunks of wood chips.  What will, in twenty and a half years, be arm-sized scaffolds supporting truckloads of sweet ripe fruit.  Please?

There is so much more, waiting.  Just waiting.

Tossed to the compost.

Microbes are blowing my mind.  Well, no: I can accept how active, ubiquitous, and adaptable they are.  I get that.  Okay.  To my rational, scientific mind they make perfect sense.  Give them the right temperature, moisture, and material, and they’ll eat and reproduce like mad until their poop outweighs their food.  Even then, they’ll continue, calling in their cousins to work on the stuff left over.  To my human parts, though– my eyes, ears, and hands, which can never perceive the billions of microorganisms engulfing and supporting me every second– microbes make magic.

Take, for example, the compost piles.  We have a few separate systems at the Laurel Valley Educational Farm, which sit in varying states of care throughout the year.  The classic 3-bin demonstration compost is waiting to be turned this week.  That’s where I killed the baby mouse.  Another is settling down in the lower field, likely to sit cold and solid for months before we muster the strength and time to churn the woody pepper stems and Brassica stalks that would have overwhelmed the top compost.  The top compost.  It is, as of Thursday, my pride and joy.  I spent an entire day forking and raking and wrestling its three piles over on themselves, carefully layering the chunkiest pieces to the middle to ensure even cooking.  The last, almost-ready pile started as a long woody mess when I arrived in August, and it’s now been reduced to a cubic yard of straggling straw and stems now (hopefully) smothered amidst the sweet black of finished compost.  The second pile had been turned a couple weeks ago by a rowdy group of students.  Their style was impressively haphazard, which is generally a fine approach to making compost.  Throw it in a pile, literally, and come back next season.

The problem with that, though, is that you come back to find a pile of debris with a bucket-sized chunk of finished black fertilizer steaming in the middle.  The debris inevitably remains around the borders of any compost, so you have to keep turning the pile to digest every last leaf.  On Thursday, I realized that the key to quick decomposition is simply a matter of habitat.  My task is to create an ideal environment for the host of microbes waiting (who knows where?) to inhabit my piles, settle down, and eat themselves silly.  If they’re happy–lo and behold!– the pile will quite miraculously melt into the ground.  Just look what happened to the freshest pile (on the left) over the weekend:

A job well done, Thursday October 27

 

Steaming and ecstatic, Monday October 31

I feel like a huge nerd for being so into it, but seriously.  This stuff is incredible.  The bottom of the newest pile has been sitting for a few weeks, and it had been fully soaked by rain and then covered by a deluge of spent summer crops.  After raking the top few feet off the top, I finally came to the oven in the middle.  It had become so wet and heavy that anaerobic bacteria took hold, letting off a stench that could shrivel even my wide and open-minded scent palette.  When I stopped to lean on my pitchfork and catch my breath, I heard a dim munching sound from below.  On closer inspection, I saw that the bubbling noise was emanating from a writhing, busy mass of maggots at my feet.  They were insatiable and unstoppable!  After just a few minutes, the population of macroinvertebrates– clearly a gold mine to a serious compost pile builder like myself– had already retreated to darker dinner tables in the sludge.  I spent the rest of the afternoon carefully coating the fresher innards of my new pile with this pre-cooked nursery of decomposers.  My imagination ran wild with the potential in that pile: the maggots would run straight to the middle, where I’d stashed all the toughest new material, and the whole thing would come alive for a precious few weeks with a lively succession of bacteria, fungi, and bugs.  They would all be so happy.

So far, my fantasy seems to be running true.  The pile was steaming furiously when I arrived at work this morning, half the height it was when I left on Friday.  In my microbial imagination, the center of the pile is literally cooking with activity, scorching and digesting the plant material that we humans discard.  I sit and eat tender lettuce leaves and sweet juicy peppers while the real world runs on slime and feces.

Really, it does.  And so, of course, do we.  Whether or not we want to admit it, our lives are utterly dependent on the poop and corpses of a bunch of invisible life forms.  What a way to make us feel truly human: humble, lowly, of the ground.

Tuesday, October 25.  Good a day as any for the first frost of the season.  I had been anticipating it for weeks, trailing off to imagine the frantic covering of rows and harvesting of tomatoes and basil that, in the end, didn’t happen.  We were all– rough yellow basil, split tomatoes, puny zucchinis, worn down hands– ready.  We knew it was coming.  We’d been waiting and wondering and not really sure if a few degrees would really matter.  Yes: everything changed in one night.

Chard before the sun.

Life and death are never as clear as when a first frost hits.  True, life is slowing every day, growth stunted, turning almost static as the day lengths shorten and the temperature drops.  The carrots that happily sprung forth from their row in mid September appear the same size as they were weeks ago, and a pepper that would ripen in a week of August sun is now hanging green.  Can plants feel some version of disheartened?  This morning when I unlocked the gate, some were already flopped over.  Others, tips lined with ice crystals, took it in stride and stood their ground.  The summer crops that we’d neglected to cover looked fine until the sun rose, at which point the ice that had formed in their leaves and fruit melted and ruptured their tissues.  Their leaves turned a deeper, drabber shade of green as their bodies steadily slumped.  Flaccid.  It was their time.

Rotting tomato time.

Though, barring a few rows of torpid vegetables in a sloped garden in east Eugene, not much is different about the world.  The fatalities on the farm won’t go noticed by folks reading upstairs at the public library, or my roommate slammed with midterms, or even some of the people charged with educating our high school students.  In their world, a frost means windshield scrapers and thermostats.  A mound of wilted basil plants might seem a bit sad, but certainly nothing to get hung up about.  Of course, like I said, it was their time.  But I think this day, and that wilted basil, may be the heaviest mark of fall we will see: truly, Fall.  Fall from growth, from security, from sunlight.  No more pretending that the season will float along without end.  At least some things can truly by decided.  Among the ceaseless tide of days and nights, dreams and awakenings, simple ice crystals have embedded in my memory.  It’s a brand new world.

Brussel sprouts.

Fennel

Leek.

  • Kohlrabi.

Carrots.

Today is my last day in Ecuador.

…Wait, ¿¿¿Qué???  How did that happen?!  While I have been soaking up sun and wandering markets and letting español plant itself surely in my brain, four and a half months passed.  Right under my nose.  Like my constant ache for home and simultaneous love for this country could continue forever, side by side confounding and delighting me.  I want to cry when I think of how joyous it will be to reunite with my family and friends, and I want to cry when I think of how much I will miss the places and people I´ve known here.  I already miss many of them, more than I imagined was possible.  I will miss being able to get on or off an interprovincial bus at any point along the highway (forget bus stations!), and the whirl of raucous music bumping in time with the curves and jolts in the journey.  I will miss the steep scent of eucalyptus that cuts through the Panamerican highway smog and inundates me, welcoming me back to the Sierra.  The rows of roasting chickens in windows along every street, and the way they stealthily pique my appetite even when out of sight.  The sight of indigenous women in ponchos and felt hats, colorful and daring amidst the hubbub of modern Quito.  A warm sea.  One-dollar golden coins jingling in my pockets.  Machetes and banana trees and being told I´m linda by random passerby.

I will miss making fleeting decisions and acting them without needing to consult anyone.  What I look forward to, though, is having people I love and trust to consult, when needed.  I look forward to reliable hot showers and free, clean public bathrooms.  To not worrying about only having $20 bills that no one can break.  To exercising my precise usage of the English language, and to fresh greens and salads at my disposal.  I look forward to having a cell phone and a computer, and to spinning my gorgeous nieces until we´re dizzy and giggling.  I can´t wait to show you more photographs and try to express all that I´ve been unable to in writing.  It will be good.  It will be, and has been, all very good.

All this time to myself has given me an opportunity to brainstorm– probably far too much– about what to Do With My Life.  The world works in myriad, mysterious, marvelous ways, and I can´t say that I have a much firmer idea about how to continue than when I arrived here.  I might still need to study more (in Academia) to satisfy my tenacious search for understanding.  I will certainly be practicing more agriculture and participating in local food movements– what I see as solutions to un montón de problemas that we face.  No matter what, the fact that I often catch myself thinking in Spanish will serve some good.  De ley voy a seguir con todo que me gusta, y de ley seguir encontrando lo bueno más y más cada año.

I named this blog from a song I wrote late last year: ¨I´m the shape of milk pouring, steady, steady…¨  Funny, now, that the shape of milk has shaped my many paths during my stay here in Ecuador.  Fresh milk first flowed into my life at the FBU farm, every morning at sunrise, and made its place in my heart (and stomach) during my stay with Marco.  It has made instant coffee delicious and ¨boring¨ queso fresco ever-distinct and tasty.  What strikes me now is that it is dearly missing from my homeland.  Even whole fat organic milk can´t compare with that glob of yellowish cream floating atop a pot of boiled milk from a nearby vaca.

Maybe I´ll end up raising cows and providing you all with the sweetness of that daily froth.  In the meantime, as paisajes and avenidas fade to memory and my body adjusts to clean tap water and burritos, I´ll be saying a long, loving adiosGracias.

Martes, 12.4.11 @ FBU

6:20– First wakening, from the kitten that is now staying in the volunteer house.  I want to name it Pluma since it´s so light and feathery, and it´s face reminds me of a bird sometimes.  The German boys have given it a boy´s name, even though we already know it´s female.  Its whiskers tickle my cheeks as it rouses for the day.

6:30– My alarm finally goes off and I force myself not to fall back into my wild dreams.  I´m signed up to collect milk this morning (and show the new volunteer, Felix, where to do it), so I can´t drift back.  I throw off the four thick wool blankets and follow Pluma to the bathroom.

6:50– After leaving the two liters of fresh, still-warm milk to boil with Felix in the kitchen, I set back out in my rubber boots to feed the chickens and collect any eggs they´ve left over the weekend.  They are the same kind as our old chickens on Bell Avenue, and as I open the door to their run I´m bombarded by memories of leading Camus, Gloria, Rosey and Pollo around the back yard with a stalk of flowering broccoli.  They stare and cluck as I measure out their daily corn ration, chasing me to the feeder past verdant tufts of grass.  Something must be done to make them eat that grass.  The yolks just aren´t orange enough… but they´ll do.  Twenty eggs.

7:05– I retreat to my room for 20 minutes of yoga.  My mind switches back and forth between concentration ont eh stretches and everything there is to do on the farm.  The volunteer coordinator and de facto huerta manager, Fred, is in Guatemala this week doing a training in microbusiness, and he basically put me in charge of the garden while he´s away.  Yesterday I spent all morning flinging myself from bed to bed, feeling almost frantic about what needs doing.  Much of it is already planted, but the thought of manually preparing all the spent beds– hoe, deeply, in clay-mud, wheelbarrow compost and pumice, pitchfork it in, rake it out, shape the bed…– makes my back ache even more.  Ahhh, back to that stretch.  Temporary relief.

7:30– I emerge again for breakfast.  Today, since we´re one egg short of a full cubeta to sell in the afternoon, I go for oatmeal.  Mix water and milk, boil with oats, add salt, sugar, and cinnamon, and top with a couple of those famous ripe oritos.  No coffee for now, though I might buy some when we go to Intag later this week to pick up warm-weather produce from an allied farmer.  They have an association of organic farmers there, and they happen to produce the best quality café in the country.

7:50– Philip, another young German who´s here at FBU for a whole year (the gap year is paid for by the government if they choose social service like this), finally enters the kitchen.  I was about to go wake him up, since today is harvest day and, though I helped last week, he´s needed to direct the show.

8:00– I go out to ¨piddle around¨ until the others are ready.  I find one of the giant pigs with an hours-old litter of nine piglets, all dazzling and fluffy, stirring around her overfull teats.  One is laying, bare and soggy, ont he other side of the concrete pen.   It was stillborn, I learn later.  The rest look healthy and already plump.

8:20– We begin harvest.  Felix, Kirsten (another new German, a bit older and here for just a few weeks), and I set out to collect chard.  A sad crop, but we gather four bunches of ten leaves each, plus a pile of holey or old leaves for the cows.  Kirsten gets pulled out by Esteban, who runs the tree nursery, to help move 5000 saplings.  She wants to practice her Spanish anyway, right?

9:30– As we harvest, I can´t help jumping back to GTF last year.  The smell of lettuce butt as the ugly leaves fall to the ground.  How many times did it take me to make a presentable bunch of chard?  Delicate cauliflower leaves hugging the glistening head– almost coy.  And carrots: how I miss those power hoses on a muddy day.

10:00– Felix, Philip, and I finish the harvest: 4 chard, 2 celery, 10 head lettuce and 6 romaine, 14 beautiful broccoli, 8 cauliflower ranging from golf ball to plate-sized, a few tomate de arbol, 4 nice fennel, several zucchini, and a pile of stout carrots.  Last week we made about $15 selling to various restaurants and conscious individuals in Tabacundo and Cayambe.  Compared to Corvallis prices, our customers are some lucky SOBS.

10:20– I´m zig-zagging plastic string between two not-so-taut wires we´re just rigged for the sweet peas.  Poor things were flopping all over the place.  Despite the mud (and therefore kinda wiggly posts) and hand-tightened wire, I can already see the plants happier.  Two weeks from now the supports will be smothered, I reckon.

10:30– I sign out to make lunch.  Collect 6 or 7 loose heads of broccoli, a couple romaine, some neglected beets, arugula, and the carrots left over from Saturday´s sales on the Panamericana.  So much to do in the garden, but it feels good to walk away for now.

11:50– I´m ladling quinoa-broccoli-onion soup into the blender as people trickle in from work.  I want the soup to be cream of broccoli, so I do one more blender-full before carrying out the salad and boiled beets.  The soup is a successful experiment, chunky and creamy with a nice grainy texture thanks to the quinoa.  Lots of veggies for one meal, but I´m happy as a clam and relieved that everyone eats it without a fuss (… well, I´m the only one eating the beet greens…).

1:00– After cleaning the kitchen, taking the compost to the pigs, and collecting three more eggs to fill the cubeta, I need to lie down for a minute.  Nobody´s about to give me a hard time.  And besides, Valentine (the fourth German, here for a year) ends up reading and sleeping all afternoon instead of going to sell with the others.  It´s raining for the moment, though, so…

1:30– I´m back in the garden, somehow getting myself to hoe up a little bed where I want to transplant chard and onion.  After hauling compost and cascajo (the pumice), I´m only half disappointed to be forced under cover by the rain.  I retreat to start a project that´s been calling me since I first got here and spilled a handful of cabbage seeds while trying to find the rosemary packet.

2:00– The seed shed.  It´s a mess.   Filthy, like with rotting potatoes against one wall and a pile of semi-fresh cow shit right in the middle.  (Why, cow, here?!)  I get to work, piling and sorting what I can on the floor (boots, old milk jugs, animal medicines, bunched sheets…) before honing in on the seeds.  Most are in a plastic storage bin, but some are lying out in packets or cans, and even in the bin there´s exactly zero sense of organization.  After a half hour or so of sorting and deciphering hand-written labels, I´m standing in front of a shelf full of plastic cups: the Brassica, the lettuces, the onions, etc.  At the bottom of the bin, I find a big bag of soy beans and couple disintegrating baggies of purple corn.  And sunflower seeds!  I´m excited.

4:00– After a proper inventory with Felix and another six eggs collected from the henhouse, I sit down with a cup of German black tea and try to make sense– for the second time in a week– of what needs to get done in the huerta.  Seeds we have, seeds we need, starts ready to transplant… and to top it all off, what phase of moon we´re in.  Today´s the first quarter, so five days from now ill be perfect for seeding fruits, leaves, and bus crops.  Roots and some leaves are best left for once the moon is waning; the gravity shift pulls all sap and water (and blood, apparently!) downward, so roots develop faster.  Vice versa for fruits (sap and water pulled up by the waxing moon means greater production above ground)– but leaves like lettuce and arugula are a draw since we´d like big leaves but no flowers.  How much of a difference does this practice actually make?  Lots, according to the old volunteer coordinator and most farmers here.  I believe it, but for now I´ll worry more about getting anything to grow at all.

5:10– I´m running down toward Picalqui, the nearest village, and somehow I´ve dodged the rain.  It´s easy flying downhill, long as I don´t slip or trip over bumpy grass or cobblestone.  Once I hit the valley floor and begin to climb, I remember that I´m at almost 10,000 feet.  Huff.  But hey, it´s easier by the day.  To distract myself, I remember my mantra from running with Marco: ¨Fuerza fuerza no se para!¨ I wonder if I have a future in garden planning, and what adventures I´ll get up to with Maria in May.

7:00– As we eat mashed potatoes and frittata prepared by Felix, he and Valentine try to teach me some German.  They´re insisting that you can never write how someone speaks (like, ¨Gimme that¨ or ¨Nothin´to it!¨) in German.  Blasphemy, they say.  One day, perhaps I will understand.  For now, my English has gotten more clear and proper so they understand me, and I can never quite figure out whether I think and dream in Spanish or not.  Almenos un poco.

9:30– After writing all this, I go out to brush my teeth and am pleasantly surprised and amused that the whole house is dark.  We be tired.

I was sitting, eyes closed, in the lap of a wide, white tree in the pasture far behind Marco´s house.  The moon, waxing crescent, had just set behind the wall of forest to our backs, and the stars were sparkling bright as fireflies.  In one sense, I was alone with just a backpack and machete.  In every other, I was with multitudinous company: one by one, I tried to hone in on each sound in the darkness.  Though I recognized none, I knew the raucous calls spoke of grasshoppers, frogs, cicadas, and a haunt of nocturnal insects.  There, an owl.  Here, a growing swarm of mosquitos trying to poke its way through the shirt I´d tied around my head.  My breath, finally calm.  Layers upon layers of foreign sound; I could barely hear a thing.  Then,

POWWWoooaaaaooo!!!

One single shot.  In the half hour I sat there listening, I had almost forgotten why I was there.  Marco had been sitting silently, as well, just a hundred meters away in the forest, high up on two logs we´d tied around two trees.  From his lookout in the darkness, he was waiting over the feeding grounds of the wanta, a large rodent that only comes out in the darkest hour of night.  Oh yes: it all came back to me before the echo of munitions faded into the animal chants of the night.  Oh yes: we had arrived around sunset to fix the lookout, re-tying and testing the logs, tracking the wantas´ previous feast of forest fruits, calling back and forth to a wakening owl in the distance.  The moon was still high in the sky when darkness set, so we went to fish until the silvery light disappeared.  We dug wriggly worms by the stream nearby, hooking them tightly and letting them sink to the mud under dangling grasses.  We´d caught about six little barbudas, similar to catfish, before Marco went to chase an armadillo that was digging around the hill we faced.  No luck this time…

(…Unlike the time he went wanta hunting last week, when he brought home a fully grown male armadillo in the backpack instead.  I was convinced to de-scale, peel, and clean it that night, concentrating on each square inch of skin or shell in order to ignore the stench.)

I digress.  By the stream, Marco returned as I held the ad hoc fishing pole in the moonlight, waiting for one more nibble.  The night was still young, we already had a bag of fish, and we were still full of energy from the chonta that afternoon (a type of palm fruit that´s orange and savory, boiled and peeled with salt and cup of coffee), so we set off through the jungle to bag more fish in a bigger river.

The sensation of walking at night is dizzying.  I mean, walking even on a sidewalk in pure darkness can be harrowing, ¿no es cierto? And, of course, walking through the forest at Opal Creek at night, hurrying with head lamps to find a campsite, is even more disquieting.  So this night in the selva amazónica— surrounded by utterly foreign smells and sounds and sensations as I passed through brush and stepped over nurse logs– was quite possibly the most alien experience of my life.  On the hunt as we were, I tried to stay alert and aware of all the noises around us, but it was nearly impossible for me to differentiate what Marco knew instantly as a grasshopper or bat.  It was all I could do to keep up with him, tread quietly over the sea of leaves and sticks at our feet, and try to not panic as we crossed slippery rivers and searched for wanta along the way.  We stopped to fish at a larger, slow bend in the river, keeping our lights off to not frighten the barbudas.  Marco called to the monkeys in the distance and huffed deeply to communicate to the little jaguar across the way that we were peaceful.  I sat, utterly stupefied, mechanically stashing each fish he caught in a pocket of the backpack.  For all my time and attention here, I realized I knew practically nothing of this forest.

At the next stream we were along the edge of the trees again, and I waited in the pasture for a moment as Marco fished.  Looking uphill at the sparse tree trunks in the last rays of white light, I imagined I was in the oak savannah of the Willamette Valley.  Bald Hill, or Avery Park, or even down around Mount Tamalpais in California.  For a few breaths, I ignored the jungle air and incessant chant, and I felt safer, steadier, sturdier–  like I could teach Marco something, this time around.  Then the aroma of orchids wafted by, I caught a whiff of my jungle sweat, and the vision morphed back.

Marco always tells me, si tienes confianza en la selva, te puede dar tanta energía, tantas cosas.  If you trust the forest, it will give you lots of energy, many gifts.

Just trust it.

The moon was falling fast along the horizon, so we started back the way we came.  The wanta would be coming out soon to search for food underneath Marco´s lookout post.  Along the way we stopped just once as the wavering whistle of nocturnal monkeys approached.  In the trees above, they bounded and leapt loudly, stopping at a safe distance to watch us watching them.  The size of large cats, they shifted curiously as their beady yellow eyes reflected Marco´s torch. Tan bodies into the trees.  The night was full.  We trekked on.

That is how I came to be sitting, eyes closed, in the lap of a wide, white tree in the night.  After the shot rang the songs of night continued undisturbed, but I was waiting anxiously for Marco to emerge from the forest´s edge.  When he finally did, flashlight bouncing along the tips of pasture grass, I peeked around the smooth leg of tree, squinting into the light, and spotted one delicate paw dangling at his side.  It was a young one, just three months old according to the fat on her belly, soft and warm and heavy.  We were happy, and I congratulated Marco for his long-awaited wanta.  On the long walk home, as we stopped suddenly here and there to listen for armadillos in the brush, I reached behind me to feel the its silky fur sticking through a hole in the bottom of the backpack.  I wished I could have seen it alive, pawing through the forest floor with its little toes, gnawing on pasos or uvas amid the grasshoppers´ crescendo.

But you know, I was also happy to see it scorched and brushed clean the next day.  I was happy to learn how to take its guts out and chop its spine into meaty hunks.  Most of all, I was happy to savor each bite of its fried meat, tender and fatty like prime rib, over a pile of boiled plátano and wash it down with fresh warm milk.

As Marco would say with a thick accent, This is jungle life.

Marco and the wanta.

I learned how to bleed a chicken before breakfast on Friday.  I was hungry and sleepy when Marco stalked off to the hen-house, his wife Maria shaking her head and smiling, and I quickly slipped my sandals on to follow him when he returned with a half-dead, shaking black chicken.  He´d already broken it´s thin, straggly neck, and we knelt behind the bathroom to let out its blood.  A quick nick under the beak, hold the spastic body tight under a bag until the spurting stops, shake firmly, and we´re ready for breakfast.

No, we didn´t eat the chicken for breakfast.  We had bolón instead, a dish that´s fast becoming a staple in my life: boiled and mashed plátano, papa china, or, this morning, green oritos (those deliciously sweet mini bananas), mixed with onion and tomato and topped with cheese or a fried egg.  Along with a cup of steamy, panela– (raw sugar) and café- infused milk that a woman drops off every couple days on her way back from her cows, any combination of jungle food gets me going in the morning.

Boiled papa china

Fresh oritos, which we´ll cook like plantains until they ripen into mini bananas

Take this morning.  I went for a run as the sun rose over the eastern lowlands, doused myself thoroughly in the chorro (a small stream a few minutes from the house that´s been crafted into a flowing ¨shower¨), and plucked a few tender yuca leaves on my way back from the stream.  Since Marco went to town with his wife for groceries, it was the first breakfast I´ve made alone since I arrived, and oh boy was I pleased with myself.  Steam-fried papa chinas with a few oritos and onion, topped with yuca leaves and cheese, a fried egg, and a steamy cup of sweet coffee.  For lunch I made practically the same, though less gourmet: boiled oritos in their peels (they slip out easily once they´re cooked) with an egg and a healthy dose of ají sauce to spice it up.

If you really are what you eat, I am quickly becoming this finca.  Even the selva is making its way into my bones.

Plato de oja, eating lunch in the forest during our leaf-harvest

On Thursday, we set out with María (Marco´s wife) and a group of gringos staying at a farm near her house to collect more paja (leaves) for the thatch roofs.  We had already brought home 6 bundles (negotiated at $3 each since it´s ¨u-pick¨) on Wednesday, each containing over 100 of these giant tojilla leaves, and we only needed two more.  While Marco and María chopped the leaves down from their lofty stalks, I and the others took them up and with both hands split each leaf down the middle, sorting the sides and keeping a loose, generous count for the new bundles.  It´s fun, sticky work, and I managed to see dozens of new flies, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other bichos of dazzling colors and shapes.  With 12 hands, we finished quickly, left the bundles on the side of the road, and started walking further adentro the forest.

The rest of the day was a moving feast in the forest, nibbling here and there on various fruits and seeds.  María has a plot of land on her sister´s property with plantains and bananas, but when we went to collect them we found that they had all, tragically, been eaten by monkeys and wantas.  With empty hands (well, except a couple stalks of sugar cane to gnaw), we moved back to the road, to the strip of land owned by the farm where the other gringos volunteer.  The owner had constructed a hut up further into the forest, so we made our way to it, slowly at first gathering guayaba (what we call guava, I think) and delicious guava (a huge green pod dangling from the trees full of fuzzy white fruit), then quickly as a strong rain shower easily soaked us.  We waited out the last half of the shower in the hut, but restlessly ventured out again once it abated.  Marco wanted to check on the paso trees nearby, which were mostly unripe– the only ripe one we found has a bright orange inner peel and tasted nutty, slightly sweet.  The fog that had rolled in blocked any view we may have found, so we climbed and slipped our way back down toward the road.  And suddenly a crazed squawking and flapping caught us for another stop in that brimming jungle: we´d surprised a pava, a type of small, turkey-like bird that roams the treetops and some days acts as a flawless alarm clock, that was chomping on seeds high up in a tree by our path.  The seeds, called cundshaya (pronounced cunjaya in my mind), look like dark olives and happen to be a favorite treat for people who know them.  Call him fearless or foolhardy, Marco didn´t hesitate to climb the tree trunk (without branches for the first 6 meters) and begin harvesting the seed bunches as María and I scampered about, collecting seeds, fending off angry ants, and dodging the heavy bunches that Marco tossed down.  In the end we almost filled his small backpack, and we´ve been snacking on them, after a quick soak in tepid water, ever since.  The bitter, dark skins are supposed to heal kidney infections.  At the very least, I can tell by their taste and color that they´re full of nutrients and healthful chemicals.

I´m getting hungry with all this talk of comida.  It´s a half-hour bus ride back to the farm, so I might buy an ice cream (what a treat here!) or roll to hold me over until I can cook some real hearty jungle food.  When I leave in two weeks, I can tell that my tissues will sorely miss their daily dose of Amazonian finca.

Since I can`t upload photos at the moment, I`m going to skip about a week´s worth of stories and pictures from the coast and bring you right up to this morning.  Stay tuned for another post that`ll make you drool over the coast of Ecuador.

I am so, SO pleased to be back in the Andes after two weeks on the coast.  The air is thin, fresh, and cool, sending whiffs of eucalyptus and pàramo grass between puffs of exhaust from the buses.  I spent two days, about 13 hours in all, to arrive in Latacunga just south of Quito.  The town is situated between Mount Cotopaxi and a semi-famous loop of indigenous villages, where many people go to visit the Laguna Quilotoa.  Sleepy and weary, I skipped the loop and stopped in Latacunga for a couple hours to bask in the Andean sun and explore the town.  The difference between the coast and mountains is remarkable: beyond simple factors of climate, flora, and fauna, the people here appear more reserved, conservative, and less curious and outgoing toward me.  That said, I feel more comfortable here as a lone woman because the men don`t gawk (much) and people seem more occupied in general than on the coast, where from every window somebody stood watching, statuesque.

I was planning to stay in Latacunga, but for some reason felt like moving on once I got there: an impulse that hits, I`ve found, when I feel alone and uprooted.  I stopped in the town of San Miguel de Salcedo, just a few miles south of Latacunga, in order to try their famous ice cream.  Just about every store in town sells these layered cones of flavors on sticks, and a couple people were tickled that I´d come just for that reason.  Not surprising, though, since the ice cream was fabulous and made right in town.  Mine was vanilla with some strawberry jam inside, followed by layers of taxo, passionfruit, and naranjilla.  You know me.  I`ll be thinking about that ice cream for weeks.

This morning I hoisted myself out of bed in order to visit a market south of Riobamba, in a little town called Cajabamba.  I had read that it`s Sunday market is huge and colorful, and since I really haven`t visited a market here yet, I was excited to get out and see what was on offer.  The bus dropped me at the main stop, where a long row of vendors stood behind their stalls of potato balls and whole roasted pigs, clients sitting on stools all around.  I passed them by for the time being and bought a couple of beautiful, intensely flavorful red bananas.  An ancient woman sat with a young sheep on a leash as I walked down a side-street toward the market: she was just the first of several I saw, tugging their sheep behind their ponchos and skirts.  The women here (and impressively, even many young women and girls) where different versions of a poncho, sweaters, shirt, close-toed shoes, and fedora-style hat, usually with a peacock feather sticking up from the side.  Sometimes they`ll have a shiny embroidered hot pink poncho and high heels, I assume to be more fashionable, but either way the garb is standard and ubiquitous.  I love it.  Women`s hair is usually long, braided or in a tight pony tail or wrap, and their earrings and necklaces are gold, dangling gracefully around their smooth, steadfast faces.

You want to see a photo, huh?  I am sorry to say that today I remembered and fully accepted my great fault as a travel writer: I simply cannot take photographs of people unless I know them or it comes up somehow.  Some people can do this, and I highly recommend you google search ¨Ecuador Andes indigenous dress¨ or something similar.  I even talked to a few elderly, very interesting-looking people in the plaza today, and I couldn´t bring myself to ask for a photo.  It just doesn´t make sense at the time, so I hope you understand.  Here´s the only photo I have of the market, taken from the booth where I bought broccoli and onions:

The market itself was fairly ordinary, as far as foreign markets go.  Stands upon stands of bananas, taxo, zapotes (which I have yet to try), and avocados surrounded another section of vegetables: tomatoes, carrots, white carrots (a native Andean crop), cabbages bigger than basketballs, onions and leeks and peppers, oh my.  Around the corner, twenty bread stalls.  A section of huge bags of bulk pasta, rice, fresh-ground wheat, and corn.  One of the buildings was full of hanging meat, and I tried to hold my breath as a scurried past the tables of pig heads and rows of cow liver hanging at my shoulders.  The other was full of prepared food, and I stopped for a plate of that potato-ball-pork-rind combo.  Not as delicious as last night´s pile of potato-pancake-fried-egg-pork-salsa on the street near my hostel, but still satisfying.  I sat with a young woman near the stall and was surprised to learn that she was my age and had just one baby.  Usually I feel like an old maid when I speak with anyone, since my marital status and age unfailingly come up within two minutes of the Buenos dìas.

Fortunately today, the elderly vendors I spoke with in the plaza were delighted to hear my story– once we began to talk, they opened up, warm and curious.  I sat down on a long bench, and soon the woman next to me turned and asked where I came from.  I learned that she lives in Riobamba and makes braided nylon ropes to sell every day there, but on Sundays she comes to sell in Cajabamba.  She was seventy-four years old, probably about 4´10¨ (not very short around here), and her smile was contagious despite its showing only four bottom teeth.  She referred to me as ¨mi hijita,¨ which translates to an endearing ¨my little daughter,¨ but is used between strangers all the time.  As she gathered her ropes to continue selling, another elderly woman approached to buy, four for a dollar, and we shook hands goodbye.  The man to my left, in a felt fedora and windbreaker, seemed to speak little Spanish at first, but we ended up talking for a while as well.  He was selling at the market with his wife, smiling and wrapped in a plaid wool poncho, and a couple sons.  They lived just up the hill and had ¨una docena¨ de hijos (twelve or so), where they farmed the usual papa, cebolla, zanahoria blanca, etc.  I was happy to share my farming experience with him, and that I was interested to see this market because I worked at a similar one in the Estados Unidos.  Really, besides the degree of ¨scraping by¨ that farmers and vendors experience here, the market itself is similar to one in the States: people get together, chat and catch up on the week, select and sell and eat, and hopefully go home with some cash.  For me, it was an opportunity to try new produce, stock up for the week, and most importantly talk with some of the locals whose lives seem incredibly different from my own.

I`ve started making a lot of my own food because I like to cook and it`s usually a lot cheaper than eating out.  So far my staples are eggs, tomato, garlic, bread, and cheese.  By cheese, I mean an intensely salty, sponge-like, tangy white block that I buy in little plastic bags from the nearest tienda.  Most non-Ecuadorians I´ve met scoff at the stuff, but for reasons I can`t pin down– as with instant coffee and super-processed sugar cookies– I love it.

I also love camarones al ajillo, a dish that`s common even in the hills but that shines on the coast.  It´s a pile of rice, a little ensalada of tomatoes and onions or lettuce, and a steamy helping of baby shrimp swimming in garlic sauce.  Preferably and usually, as with most dishes on the coast, it`s served with several patacones: green plantains fried, smashed into distinct little patties, and fried again.  Con sal, limòn, y un gote de ajì… (Very unfortunately, this computer isn`t letting me upload a photo of said dish.  Màs tarde.)

While I was living at the farm, I had the good fortune to eat dinner with two different Ecuadorian families.  First, our co-worker and manager of the tree nursery, Esteban, invited all twelve volunteers to his home one Thursday evening.  While we toured his parent`s gardens (they make their living from selling whatever produce they don`t use at home– they also cultivate outdoor flowers to sell, rather than the green-housed and chemical-laden roses that the region supplies to the world market), his mother and adorable grandmother prepared a feast of mote (looks like hominy), rice, papas from the garden, and home-raised roasted chicken topped with fresh ajì and tomato salad.  I was worried when Esteban didn`t come to sit with us, instead eating in the doorway, but later found that it`s costumary for the hosts to eat last and constantly attend to guests rather than sitting with them.

Just a couple days later, Edwin, who has been involved with the Fundación for years and continues to help by giving lessons to the volunteers and driving us around to sell produce in the towns nearby, invited us to his daughter Micaela´s nineth birthday party.  Only four of us made it, but it ended up being one of the most fun afternoons I`ve had here.  We sat and chatted with juice for the first hour or so, and then moved into the garage to all sit around a bigger table.  There was Edwin and his wife Maggie, their two young daughters, me and three other volunteers, the volunteer coordinator and his lady friend, three neighbor kids, and Edwin`s sister and her 19-year-old daughter, also Micaela.  After singing Happy Birthday in a few languages and munching down dense slices of banana cake, we went outside to play.  Cat and mouse, musical chairs, a couple of team competitions, egg tossing, and lots of cracking up brought us to dinner time: roasted rabbit from Edwin`s farm with papas.  I hadn`t expected to stay the whole evening, but after dinner we continued to play and hang out, and once night fell we came inside to learn some salsa dancing.  I was exhausted by the time Edwin drove us all back to the farm at 10 pm, full and impressed by such unabashed hospitality.