Archives for category: Questions

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.

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.

Every morning, I wake to the sounds of dozens of birds and bugs and breezes, frantic and excited for another day of sun and rain.  I lift the mosquito net over my head, just enough to peer out the window into Armando’s plot of land, bursting with greens and changing every second as the early light grows and shifts.  There’s one tree back there whose trunk is covered in a creeper with round, neon little leaves.  The other day I was up to grab my book and spotted a Motmot in that tree, relatively still and silent with its brilliant blue tail hanging nonchalantly toward me.  I could hardly contain myself, searching for the binoculars without taking my eyes of that tail, sure that it would fly away just as I opened the case… but it stayed, just hopping up a few branches as I gawked from the open-air bathroom.

Why does nature express itself so creatively, so exuberantly, here in this particular place?  Sure, it could simply be a matter of humidity and heat, of eons of evolution and careful conservation efforts in recent years.  Who knows, it could even be that some divine being decided to bless these hills and valleys with its most inspired designs.  These days, though, I can’t shake the idea from my mind that there’s some sort of magic in the mix.  The glitter and flap of iridescent blue butterflies sweeps me into a world where magia becomes possible–even necessary.

This morning we dragged ourselves out into the sunrise, high above Mindo and past where the canopy tours run, to search for some of the thousands of bird species that grace this forest.  I had been out once before, alone, and saw dozens of gorgeous species, few of which I could identify.  Though everything is enthralling with or without a name, I was happy to have Armando pointing out bird calls and differences between males and females and subspecies along the way.  Of course the small lemon tanager males are more brilliant than the females, with blindingly yellow streaks under their jet-black wings; songbird sexes are always relatively easy to tell apart.  The toucans are harder.  There are not only males and females, but also at least three species that we saw– one with a distinct, red-spotted chest and two that look the same to my untrained eyes.  They were chatting and singing to one another across the gravel road, high in the trees but easy to spot, cocking their heads and preening their feathers.  Occasionally one would stretch its black wings out, feather tips silhouetted neatly against the sky, and glide silently to another branch.  Whether they were chasing each other, joking or teasing or crying longingly for a mate, I am left wondering.  How do they choose whom to love?  I find it hard to believe it´s simply a matter of the biggest beak or loveliest cackle.

But what do I know about toucan love?

Then there were the quetzals, stunningly sparkling and marine-colored.  They are normally scarce and certainly difficult to see perched in camouflage against the canopy, but today we saw at least three pairs, chasing one another and hunting for insects in the wide-open ravines that lead down to the Rio Mindo.  I surely would have missed them had I been alone, but Armando patiently pointed out each one and we stood in awe as their red tails flashed in and out of sight.  Instead of singing, sometimes they just laugh like hyenas, like they´ve got some secret I´d be a fool to guess at.

¨Qué más quieres ver?¨ asked Armando after we’d marvelled some time over toucans and quetzals, the two most magnificent, ¨exotic¨ birds to my eyes.  A hawk, a woodpecker, an eagle?

And just past the next curve, he shushed me over to look up at a branch hanging over the road, dripping with epiphytes: a hawk, silent and serious, glaring over the valley below.  He (she?) then starting calling, slowly and softly at first, almost gently, then crescendoing steadily into a wild war cry.  As it let out the last deafening pulse, it opened its wings and dropped away around the curve, out of sight.

As the sun finally crept over the canopy and my stomach started growling, I didn’t need to know much more.  That this place is perpetually happening, that its life force cycles in every direction, up and through every [damned] mosquito and [steadfast] hawk, every day of the year, doesn´t require that I know about it.  The fact that I can, just a bit… magic.

-Monday, May 2

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 went to the coast, again.  Got swept away by a gorgeous sincere friend, his ¨Chilumbiano¨ friend and employee, a Yankee turned Ecuadorian, an English couple now living in Mindo and their visiting friend, a German-Ecuadorian woman who runs a hostel in Mindo, and two goofy guys from the same town.  All in all there were ten of us, plus the driver of our little van and his wife.  From Mindo, we took off Sunday afternoon and made it to the ocean at sunset.  Feet in the Pacific again, I was thinking ¨Why did I ever leave the coast?!¨  We slept in Canoa, that little town I stayed in earlier this year, for two nights, lazing in the sun all day and exploring the critter-covered rocks down the beach.  I assumed, with some trepidation, that we would be partying all week since this group tends to meet up at Armando´s bar on the weekends.  We stayed tranquilo, though, until we got to Montañita on Tuesday.  That town is renowned for its alternative, festive, party scene (not to mention its killer surfing waves), and the minute we arrived I could tell why.  There were jugglers and artisans lining the main street, bars and restaurants and hostals at every corner, and loads of clothing and surf gear shops.  

 

Outside ¨Pais Libre¨ Hostal in Canoa with Armando.

 For the first time since I arrived in Ecuador, I stayed out well past my bed time dancing and gallivanting around with Armando, Sergio (the Chilumbiano), Marco (the American-Ecuadorian who tended to play the role of padron), and whoever we happened to run into on the street.  I practiced my poi with some guys that seemed to have been there for years, ended up with a panama hat on my head all night (some of you know how I get with hats), and couldn`t stop dancing despite the suffocating heat.  I wanted it to happen again the next night… but times like that can`t be anticipated, can they?

After Montañita we crowded back into the van and continued down the Ruta del Sol to Salinas, where Marco has an beachfront apartment.  We took turns cooking dinners and lunches as teams and I managed to completely lose sight of any routine or discipline I usually keep.  Beach, cool ocean (since it`s out on a peninsula it`s not the normal bath-water in other towns), strolls, gazing out from the eighth floor balcony, and lots of lazing. 

The view from Marco`s apartment in Salinas.  Ahhhhh…

Too much lazing, as it turned out.

When we returned to Mindo last Sunday, I knew it was time to leave Armando and Mindo for a while and find something more productive and satisfying.  I needed a return to routine, to space and time for myself, and to something more structured.  I know, I just wrote about how I needed to let go of everything for a while… and I did.  I threw myself head first into a no-plan, a road trip led by almost-strangers, and a potential love.  I guess it took all that to remind me at my core that Apollo– the god of order, discipline, and work– is just as important in my life as Dionysus, the goddess of chaos, revelry, and play.  Sometimes I forget… okay?

La playa en Salinas

The gang.   🙂

… And now, after over a month in the Ecuadorian Amazon– a month of tranquil but intense learning, reflection, and healing– I am suddenly back in the urban jungle of Quito.  It feels a bit strange to say goodbye to the eastern lowlands, as I doubt I´ll return on this visit, but also exciting and invigorating to be moving on.  I feel, finally, ready to approach my travels here with a new attitude: one of flow, optimism, and release.  A beautiful word I learned a while back, suelta, encompasses this attitude (which I am still nurturing and which I will, I imagine, always have to cultivate since I tend to grasp hold of plans and goals).  It means to let go.

So I am letting go of a few things that have been holding me back in various ways, superficially and subconsciously.  First, the desire to ¨learn Spanish¨ has admittedly taken me to wonderful places and people and presented a firm base for my travels, always trying to seek out Spanish speakers and converse with whoever is around.  Fortunately, it´s brought me miles and miles beyond what linguistic skills I arrived with, but it´s also stood as an artificial block between me and other travelers who don´t speak much castillano.  I know I´ve been cold and rather closed to those people in comparison to Spanish speakers, even though they might have enriched my experiences beyond compare.  This goal, then, is settled as it stands.  I will obviously continue to speak mostly Spanish, but I´m letting go of language in favor of people.  Any people who brighten the way.

Also, my apparent need to feel productive, professionally, whatever that means, is purposefully slipping through the cracks.  I came here with motives to gain valuable career experiences, but what I´ve realized after my three volunteer stints is that even an official volunteer program doesn´t guarantee specific skills.  Rather, any volunteering simply provides opportunities to learn, informally for the most part, about myself, my interactions with others, and whatever task is at hand.  Instead of coming home with a particular resumé line, no matter what I do I`ll come refreshed and brimming with new experience.  So, rather than worrying another minute about finding the perfect organization or farm to work for, I´m hoping to just soak it all in, whatever it happens to be, attentively and energetically.

That´s what´s been going on in my head the past week or so.

And what have I been doing?  I found Saraswati through a couple friends near Marco´s farm, and headed up to Tena last Thursday to check it out and volunteer.  The family that owns the farm is an English-Colombian couple with a young son, and since they own an English language institute in Tena they were often absent from the finca itself.  However, the husband Benjamin sleeps there and every morning he and his two helpers, Parsad and Pablo, practice bhakti yoga, which entails chanting Hare Krishna, mantras, reading holy books, playing soft instruments at 5:30.  After an hour of wafting back and forth from sleep, I would awake every morning to practice yoga postures with Pablo.  Early, but if you know me you know I loved it.  As for work, I went to help at the school on Friday and Sunday, playing and saying random English words to the 2 and 3 year-olds that come every morning, and on Tuesday we all planted some trees and made cane juice.  Unfortunately I have to cut this short, but if you´re interested in hearing more about the Hare Krishna culture and traditions, which are all fascinating and rare, I would love to share more.  All my love.

Sideways making cane juice in the hand-crank mill.

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.

It feels rather silly to be starting a new blog, just in time for a new journey, after reading this introduction to my last online journal:

“I left my home when the sky was busting open with cold water and arrived at the “beginning” under a hot setting sun. My goal was to speak Spanish fluently by the time I returned, and my loose plans sent me south. While I wandered through jungles and beaches, fiestas and ruins, though, those plans disintegrated in the humidity and I became plankton, drifting with the wandering currents of America Central. The act of ending my journey is impossible, for what began in my mind as a “trip” has melded seamlessly into life at large. So, when someday you mention my travels as if they’re over, I will smile and remind you that the soles of these feet can never be worn through. I figure I might as well use them.”

Somehow, this “life at large” has seamlessly eddied into an experience more settled, secure, and in some ways stagnant than any other in my adult life.  Though the soles of my feet constantly tread new ground, it’s become harder and harder to appreciate life’s fullest possibilities here in my home town.  No, there is no need to travel to find peace or satisfaction.  Yes, wilderness and adventure await in every sidewalk crack to an active, curious mind.  I can be happy and feel at home anywhere, so why not just stay?

I think you already know the answer.

I will never speak English perfectly, and I doubt I’ll master Spanish, but immersion is my only hope.  I will not know a place, and its relationship to my homelands, unless I go there.  I cannot know humanity without sharing my life with people vastly different from myself.  Something happens to my brain– something very exhausting, but very good– when I plop myself in the unfamiliar.  It flexes and bends with every doubt and insight, reconfiguring itself to be more adaptable and anticipatory.  When I enter new, uncomfortable situations, I am forced to constantly revise my understanding of the world.  I want that revision, now.

What will this corner of the globe have to say about life?  I leave from the Portland airport at 6:25 am on Wednesday, January 5.  I arrive in Quito, Ecuador at 10:12 pm that night, and I have exactly 140 days to attempt an answer to that question.