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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

la hesperia - favorites (mi)

ECUADOR | Thursday, 5 March 2009 | Views [1159]

View from our volunteer house

View from our volunteer house

i hear mooing.

i stuff my 80 cent white gardening gloves half way into the right pant pocket of my grey quick-dry pants, leaving the fingers, with their red flower pattern wet and soiled, sticking out to dry.  the pattern makes me feel like a happy old lady tending her retirement garden of tomatoes and peas, and whenever i wear them my fear of aging seems to disappear.  i turn to walter:  vamos a la ordena.  he lifts his head up from the weeding he's doing with his hands: bueno.  three other volunteers are already up, and although none of us can see over the tree line from the vegetable garden to the milking barn, the calls of the cows are so loud that we conclude they are near, in from a day of feeding on tall grasses in the meadows of the biological station.

walter, la hesperia's current volunteer coordinator, is 27 going on 40.  seems like youth here age quickly and are expected to carry responsibility early, but walter's history and his present is still impressive.  he and dario, his older colleague who is in charge of the cows, walk the perimeter of the 2000 plus acre reserve, checking for trespassers.  i asked alexandra, whose husband juan pablo owns the property, if they have seen any lately, and she grinned and said, with her sarcastic and perfect chilean-bred english: there's people here; they decided to settle in here and build a house.  they just crossed the property line and said that's their property.  i loved talking with alexandra, things in her world are so different from mine.  and where her english is perfect, walter's consists of a list of the station's basic tools and foods and plants, all in a tiny notebook he carries around with him in case of volunteer cluelessness.  and he hears enough of volunteer english to know that he should give work instructions in very simple spanish.  volunteer turnover is rapid; other than offering instructions and spontaneous bits of education, walter mostly talks smack to whomever talks to him, and with each new volunteer, he begins anew, no matter the particular personality arriving to join the group.  in the past 4 weeks, we have come from england, scotland, south africa and switzerland, from all over the united states and from canada.  most between the ages of 18 and 22, but there have been a few over 30 of drastically different personalities (ourselves excluded), which has confirmed for me that age really has very little to do with whether you choose to jump into machete'ing and digging and planting and language lessons like it's your last year of life and the chance is going to pass you by, or whether you feel like drinking till the wee hours of the morning and bowing out of work the next day like its your last year of life and the chance is going to pass you by.  or something in between.  people are funny.  when ivan and i arrived and formalities were exchanged bit by bit as we stumbled into small groups of people over the course of our first afternoon, one volunteer came close and told me that there was someone who left before we arrived who was over 60; she whispered this for some reason.  i'm not close to 60, but the view to there is much better from 30 than it was from 20, so i didn't whisper back.  i never tend to whisper anyway.  however, i do stutter in spanish. 

i spend the weekdays here stuttering wildly in between our hourly afternoon spanish lessons, searching like mad to find, at the very least, the right verb infinitive before i can run on toward the object of my sentence.  i'm not sure why i think this is a good idea, but i find myself trying to speak spanish like i speak english - ahead of my thoughts... it doesn't work any better in spanish.  conversations between walter and me build like an erratic construction project; with me, the worker, handing over bits of ideas, while walter the site manager puts them together into sentences, onto which more ideas can be tossed.  this project is: muy dificil. 

often, after a cursory demonstration of brush clearing and tree planting or other sweat-and-hunger inducing morning project, walter will go hours working silently next to us, calling us over to point out an interesting fruit, flower or bizarre looking bug.  often these demonstrations come with his own brand of humor, stuffed into a trick that you need to decipher by weeding through the spanish.  between work times, he eats meals at the end of our table, keeping his head to his heaping plate of rice and accompanying protein and salad, and while the rest of us excitedly shovel down our portions.  he listens quietly to our days' stories.  when a czech volunteer joined us this last week, arriving without 2 words of english, there appeared more spanish at the table, shifting our stories to where everything in the world, including our histories and our futures, seems to happen only in the present and involve a limited selection of persons, places and things.  i've never heard so many stories about food.  when walter hears something he likes, his eyes twinkle and he picks his head up and adds a quirky tale about something that happened to a prior volunteer, or a friend of his, or... he laughs at his own stories with his head thrown slightly back.  his laugh signals the punch line, and is followed by his rapid return to rice.  for what might be his favorite activity with us, every other friday walter leads us on unnecessarily steep, unnecessarily muddy and unnecessarily wet hikes throughout the property… he grooms the hiking paths with his work machete as he walks ahead, laughs hysterically when one of us missteps into two feet of mud or is surprised-pounded by the arms of the waterfalls, applauds the few brave who swing Tarzan-style from vines on the jungle-like cliffs off the trail, and is always, always there to reach out to grab anyone of us who needs a hand scrambling up our next turn.  we have appreciated so much our time everyone here, but walter and dario have carved impressions on me not soon to fade.

at the sound of the cows, we leave the flittering butterflies and caterpillars with their multi-colored fur coats keeping walter company as he continues pulling weeds from our homemade boxes of soil and planted green onions, cilantro, carrots and cabbage.  we walk quickly to the milking station, where we find dario, sandra, carlos, and...zero milking cows.  aw.  my favorite animals here might be the adult cows, always with their fuzzy floppy ears and huge bug eyes peering out at me, even though i know that when i see them, it’s often accompanied by unhappy mooing – milking is harder than it looks and these guys aren't thrilled at ill-practiced volunteers pulling ineffectively at their full udders.

but they're not here; it's only the baby cows we hear.  they trick us every time.

ten minutes later the adults come bumping along in a small crowd, pushing into each other and into the standing wooden milking lanes, avoiding strong encouragement at all costs.  they stand inside the cramped lanes, face to backside, in two tight rows, waiting for their back legs to be tied together, and their udders washed with cool water.  plastic cartons that have been scissored in half hold food supplement and are placed before each anticipating mouth, and empty buckets tossed below each negligent backside.  the volunteers stand in pairs where we're directed, ready to try again, knowing full well that dario will fill whole buckets from two cows with the steaming white liquid by the time a pair of us fills a quarter of a bucket.  but we continue to return almost each afternoon, determined to improve with practice.

working as a team today, ivan and i take turns with the same cow, my hands tire more quickly than his, so he gets to take longer turns.  we have been milking a few times now, and rapidly achieve a double stream from two teats: pull-squeeze the right, pull-squeeze the left... and on and on until the others are finished and dario or sandra takes over to finish us up.  one day a week, a volunteer will take 3 liters to the kitchen to boil and make yogurt for our next morning's breakfast.  other days, we just look forward to the thick boiled liquid with 7:30 am bowls of oats and coffee mugs.  the milk smells differently than store bought cartons, but then again, everything smells differently out here.  we smell differently.  life smells differently.

out here it smells like the piles we scrub out of the calves' stalls at dawn.  like mosquito and black fly repellant (although even deet and mosquito nets over our beds doesn't quite cut it).  of weekend waterfall mud, caked onto the calves of our locally bought knee high boots long after we return from soaring hikes and the monkeys and birds and hundreds of butterflies we failed to capture on film.  of weeding lemongrass plants.  and freshly baked bread.  it smells of the donkey (la mula) - who refuses to budge no matter how hard we plead, although he does eventually continue down the hill with the cow milk for sale (eventually we all succumb to the ways of the locals and whack him on the backside to convince him to stop eating and get back onto the cobblestone road and on with it already). stubborn mule.

the smells are in my nostrils and stuck in my clothes.  benito, grandfather farm dog, smells better than i do.  i scrub and scrub, by hand on the flat stone laundry slab, but it seeps into my cuffs and pockets and pillow and into the pages of my spanish lessons.  i carry the odors with me all day, like hazy photographs reminding me of the task just completed, or the friday hike, or of the dark nighttime walk in the pouring rain back to the volunteer house after dinner.

it smells of rain and cloud, and of forest and mountain.  it smells like a month that's ending slowly and quickly at the same time, and it even smells slightly of the next bus adventure ahead of us, taking us away from our month at the bio reserve and leading us to....


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