September 27th, 2012


I left Quito Monday morning at 6:35 am. While waiting for take-off, I noticed that the sun reached the top of the mountain at 6:15 am, the way I know in the tropical lowlands where I spent the last three months, the sun goes down behind the mountain peak at 5:30pm. As the plane rose I got a last look at the city that sprawls at the base of volcanoes as if the houses themselves are solidified lava. I realized that even though the flight attendants were speaking to me in English, I was responding in Spanish. I began reading an article in the National Geographic español edition. I realized I understood 85% of the article, which was about the increase in natural disasters in the U.S. I recalled how just the day before I felt an earthquake tremor for the very first time. I remembered many of the other firsts I experienced during my stay in Ecuador–drinking guayusa, making chicha, riding on a motorcycle, white-water rafting, looking up to a starry sky and not finding Orion there, feeling completely unable to express myself through words, being taught simple survival skills by children, being a foreigner, being proposed to by a complete stranger (I didn’t accept), being offered children by complete strangers (I took the offer but I guess they changed their minds); hearing Illuku, a nocturnal bird, sing to the moon, eating live ants, watching a papaya tree fall to the ground on a completely calm and sunny day, making my own charcoal, planting trees, harvesting my own dinner, being cleansed by a Shaman, and being an expert on something for the first time in my life: the English language.

For a while I felt like I had nothing to offer, but I realized that for a community trying to develop sustainable income through tourism, English is very valuable. I realized that the English professors in the high school are often college students still learning English themselves, so the more I helped the college students, the more I was also helping the high school students. When I visited the high school classes I got oohs and ahhs over the way I pronounced words in English. I tried not to laugh too much at this because I could feel the breaths being held in the room because the students were listening and watching me so attentively, and taking their English class very seriously. They asked me in English where I was from, how old I was. One boy asked me why I had green eyes. I told him it was because my father has green eyes.

In this final blog I want to encourage people to number one, visit Ecuador, and number two, to try not to feel impatient with anyone when faced with language barriers. Number three, if you are wondering why I haven’t felt like blogging in the three days since I have returned–never eat airplane food no matter how hungry you are.

I’m leaving with a poem written by Francisco Amighetti, who was a Costa Rican artist and writer. Translated by yours truly.

The Trip

Already I am saying goodbye to everyone

since it takes so much time.

I don’t want to draw in these green earths,

I want to see unknown and indigenous faces,

to hear other songs, to cry the same sorrow.


New humiliations, new successes,

that my heart returns to sound

another time in other streets,

where architecture tells me secrets

of an evocative life and torn history–

Oh phantom of stone! the antique silence. 

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September 11, 2012

I turned 27 last Thursday, and though birthdays aren´t usually particularly interesting milestones for me, this one seemed significant because I never imagined I´d have any birthday in another country, and that I´d be there to write poetry.  Though I have been writing poetry since I was nine, I never imagined I´d fall so deeply in love that I wanted to spend a lifetime writing poetry. I´d like to post a poem by Percy Shelley that has been a favorite since I was fifteen. Though I know I will change significantly through my lifetime, poetry keeps returning, and will keep returning, perhaps in different ways.


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;

How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,

Streaking the darkness radiantly!—yet soon

Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings

Give various response to each varying blast,

To whose frail frame no second motion brings

One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest.—A dream has power to poison sleep;

We rise.—One wandering thought pollutes the day;

We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;

Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,

The path of its departure still is free:

Man´s yesterday may ne´er be like his morrow;

Nought may endure but Mutability.

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September 4, 2012

Today I am writing about language, and how although most of the time very important to me as a person and poet, is also not very important. I am back in the community I have been staying for the past two months. There are two tourists staying with the community who are from France, and this morning sitting around the breakfast table there were four languages: Kichwa, Spanish, French, and English. After we ate we thanked the cook in all four; Pagarachu, Gracias, Merci, Thank you.

We had a guayusa ceremony this morning, and Frederico said that an example of why guayusa was so important was because we were all here together, even though we are from three different countries, three different continents, to learn from each other. I realized that despite language barriers I was learning so much simply by observing.

Waiting for the bus today to town, the eldest woman of the community, who is 100 years old, came to sit next to me. She is monolingual, and speaks only Kichwa. When she has spoken with me in the past I have had a difficult time, because she reminds me a lot of my grandmother, and because I desperately want to speak with her and learn from her I usually end up getting upset that we can´t communicate. Today, however, I thought about my grandmother and how now we don´t communicate though language anymore anyway. She had a stroke a few years ago, and now we have to communicate mostly through body language. When I considered this, I began studying this woman´s face instead of turning away in embarrassment as I usually do. She kept talking, and from studying her expressions I found out so much.

The turning of the stiff hands and the expression of pain, the same expression while rubbing the stomach and pointing down the road to the nearest medical office. The upturning of the pockets of her dress. The tears in her eyes. The glance down at the hand, the turning of the wedding ring. The distant expression of loss and remembrance. These are the things that are important, and these are the things we should pay attention to when communicating with one another, because a lot of people, especially in my generation, don´t really listen to one another. We are more interested in talking about ourselves. If we would simply look at each other, we could be listening much more clearly, and learning a lot more about one another, and about the world around us.

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August 28, 2012

I am in the capital city, Quito, for a week. The bus ride is four hours through the mountains/volcanos, and it costs 6 dollars. When I got here, I got a four dollar hair cut and met up with the family I’m staying with. I had pizza in a restaurant and rode in a car out to a field where their family horse, Chocolate, resides. The family is wealthy, so I am sort of having reverse culture shock. I’m not used to fancy cell phones, hot water, family cars, or even mirrors. The family is very nice, but they can’t cook. They heat up food for us in the microwave, and I’m used to fresh fruits and juices, homemade soups, and fresh herbs. Also, they eat late- 9 or 10 at night, the hour I am used to going to bed! It’s hard to stay up for dinner. I might not stay up tonight.

I feel like an ambassador for the community I live with, because I get questioned by people whether or not I like it there, and they are always really surprised when I say that I do. They are surprised when I say the people are very nice, and that I like the food and the language. More people from the city need to go stay with indigenous communities. The only things they know are from the posters and postcards of half-naked babies and weathered old people carrying loads of heavy goods through the jungle. The stereotypes of Kichwa communities are that they are dark skinned, don’t wear clothes, and drink too much. The truth is that just like any community there are dark, medium, and light-skinned people, who wear the same clothes that they wear in the city. Just like in Quito or the United States, there are people who drink too much and people who don’t drink at all. I guess the best thing I can do is to share my good experiences with the people who repeat these stereotypes.

Today I went book shopping. I drew out a map by hand (no iphone or gps here!) and was very proud of myself when I found all of the stores on my map. I bought an anothology of contemporary Ecuadorian poetry, and another book of poems by an Ecuadorian author, Julia Erazo, published in February of this year. I don’t know any Ecuadorian poets, so I’m excited to read them, though it will probably take me a year or so, since my translating is slow. I can’t forget the cookbook I bought! The Ecuador Cookbook, bilingual edition.  I can now make dinner for my family in the community since I have recipes to go by.

While I’m here this week, I’m going to be a tourist in the morning, and take group Spanish lessons in the afternoons. I had my second class today, and I really like my teacher, who is very animated. She speaks to us, not just about the language, but about the culture of Ecuador. There are only three of us, and the other girl in my class is a baker from the United States who wants to move here permanently and open an American-style bakery to sell donuts and brownies. She has a used oven that still needs a part, but if she gets the part before Friday she is going to bake for us. I am dreaming of brownies….

The same girl in my class told me I should go to the park near her house because there is a statue of a poet. I asked her what poet, and she couldn’t remember, but she said it was the Plaza de Chile. “Neruda?” “Yes, That’s who it is.” I am going to try to find the park tomorrow. Neruda is very alive here in Ecuador.


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August 20th, 2012

There are children in the world who will cook breakfast for you (scrambled eggs, fried plantains, hearts of palm), drink coffee with the adults in the morning, who take naps on their own in the daytime, and who eat dinner quickly so they can go to sleep. These children will babysit your children for you. I know because I live with these children. I woke up this morning to an 8-year-old girl lighting a heavy-duty gas stove, and an 11-year-old boy slicing plantains. The reason I was amazed was because the one time I tried to light this particular stove I almost blew my face off. (I attributed this to a faulty stove, but apparently it was me, the faulty human.)
I used to consider myself self-sufficient. In the United States I do my own laundry with a machine, I walk or ride the train or drive to get where I need to go, I cook for myself, I pay bills, etc. I now know that none of these means anything. I’m still helpless because I have no survival skills. With a machete, it takes me half an hour to cut down a tree with the diameter of a spool of thread. I don’t know how to catch fish in the river using only my hands, and I don’t know how to weave a net to catch them. I can’t build a house, plant a garden, or find ants hidden in the knot of a tree if I’m starving in the forest. I can’t find the right plants if I need medicine or make my own charcoal for building a fire.
I’ve been reading Neruda’s The Hands of Day. I bought this particular bilingual edition right before leaving town to practice Spanish, and even though he’s a Chilean poet, his words have become very relevant to my experiences in Ecuador. This is an excerpt from the poem, “El Hijo del la Luna” or “Child of the Moon”, translated by William O’Daly:

“Everything is here, living,
creating itself,
without my patient participation…

And because I went so far without grinding
minerals or cutting wood
I feel that the world does not belong to me:
it belongs to those who pounded nails and cut
and raised these buildings,
because if the mortar, which was born
and lasted sustaining the intentions,
was made my others’ hands
caked with mud and blood,
I did not have the right to declare
That I existed: I was a child of the moon.”

I feel somewhat useless here, because my hands are useless in planting and building, and because as is reflected in Neruda’s poetry, the poet feels anxiety about whether the poetry they are writing has value
in a world where working with hands is so important.
A week ago someone killed an opossum around 7pm. The opossum was hung in a tree, and the next morning the belly was split open in preparation for making soup. The opossum was abandoned for other duties, and in about ten minutes two pink hairless babies gave birth to themselves, and began trying to suckle milk from their dead mother. As I admired their struggle for survival, it made me realize how helpless we really are as human beings. When the human body is very ill it can’t sustain itself. Dehydration can happen very rapidly, and weakness and fever can take over, leaving one incapable of caring for oneself. When I was sick I was in bed with a fever for hours, and as soon as someone discovered me alone they brought my temperature back down to normal in less than an hour.
I think the main reason communities (that word alone says a lot) thrive so well in the Amazon is because everyone works together. Everyone works in the garden together, everyone helps when a new house is being built, and everyone is well-fed, because if you don’t have food at your house you go to someone else’s. The children take care of each other, and not to say that they are perfect, but I think a reason they are well-behaved in the household is because they use their hands to help cook, do laundry, take care of smaller children. When they play, they play with natural objects- things with roughness, warmth or coolness, sharp, smooth, aromatic. They build with stones in the river, make telescopes from banana leaves, light small fires in the dirt around tiny houses decorated with pale purple flower petals that glow in the moonlight. In their hands they hold butterflies, tadpoles, fish, beetles, crickets, tiny snakes. They take the heads off of lip-shaped carnivorous plants and hold them in their teeth. They walk barefoot, so that their body knows the landscape, or vice versa, in the words of Neruda, “Ando por el terreno que conoce mis pies”, “I walk over terrain that knows my feet.”

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August 14th, 2012

I wasn´t sure what I was going to blog about today until I got to the computer lab and ended up sitting next to some American guy skyping with his dad. He is trying to convince his dad not to come to Ecuador because ¨there´s nothing special about it¨, because here, ´´it´s just an Amazon and this is just a town on the edge of the Amazon.¨ He also said that the indigenous areas were just ¨slums.¨ I literally laughed out loud when he said that the land he visited was totally overgrown, that there wasn´t even a trail to walk on. The main reason that his conversation is ridiculous is because he only got here five days ago, and because if you can´t see the beauty of the land itself, then it would take you much more than five days to understand the complicated culture of the rainforest. I feel like I barely understand it when I have been here for almost two months.

What I do understand about indigenous culture is that there is no such thing as ¨overgrown trail¨ because they make the trail as needed with machetes as they walk through the rainforest. They don´t need a trail, because they know how to follow the streams and rivers to find their way through the forest. The forest is special because it is their source of food, medicine, and materials for houses. The river is really important as well. I think the river is the most important thing for the kids, who play, bathe, wash clothes, swim, and fish in the river. They are in the river most of the day, for hours at a time. Adults boil traditional teas and medicines with water from the river. All of the domesticated animals that the people own drink from the river. I have gotten to know these people and consider them a second family. What worries me is that people like the guy in the computer lab today don´t understand the culture and to them, these people are just in the ¨slums¨ and therefore they are not important. People like him don´t understand that every time they waste plastic or use their cars they are supporting a business that threatens to destroy the river, and the people who get their life source from it.

The community I live in will probably have visible oil drills in a few years. Seismic testing has already been done, and there is a contract from the government for the next thirty years. Other areas nearby are being explored, especially in the Napo River. The Napo river flows through thousands of communities just like the one I live in, and if there were an oil spill there, it would destroy many people´s lives. The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico threatens animals and tourism, and seafood, but imagine if we depended on the gulf for a lot of our food, or if all of our animals had to drink from the gulf, if we bathed and washed our clothes, and cooked food with water from the gulf. If something happened to the river here, it would not only harm people physically, but spiritually as well.

After the spill in the gulf it took me a year to be able to go back to visit it. I felt guilty because I am partially responsible by supporting oil companies. The same view is held here when people own cars or motorcycles they are sometimes looked down on because they support the oil companies that are invading people´s land and threatening their way of life. People in the western world should also think about this when buying gas, plastic products, foods and beauty products that contain petroleum. Every time we do, we are threatening someone´s way of life somewhere in the world.

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August 3, 2012

I’m writing this blog on critters and food, because I love both, and because sometimes they overlap. This morning I enjoyed a delicious omelet made with wild asparagus and hearts of palm. What you might not know, is that when hearts of palm is gathered, the grub that lives inside of the palm tree is also gathered. I have actually avoided eating them so far..I saw them in their live form, and I think they are really cute, so it is going to be hard if I am put in a situation where I have to accept them. Anyway, for being a (mostly) vegetarian I have been doing pretty well eating what I’m offered here. Yesterday, the children dammed part of the river, put in a fish poison that makes the fish stunned or drunk-like rather than dead, and then waded in and picked all the fish up in their hands for dinner. The fish are little—at most up to 5 inches in length…some were only 3 cm—but they cook them whole in a soup and they have a lot of flavor. I myself helped the kids pick up fish. I wasn’t very good at it—I guess my eyes aren’t trained at finding floating fish under the water—so I only found about ten small ones, but the first time picking one up was the hardest. The fish aren’t actually dead yet, so they flop around in your hand and you have to make a fist so they don’t hop out. I almost decided I couldn’t do it when I watched one struggling for breath in my hand, and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it if I were only going to be eating it myself, but I was with the kids, and they were all really excited because the meal is one of their favorites. They are the sweetest kids I have ever been around, and I wanted them to have a good meal. One fish I picked up looked dead, and I told a five year-old girl that it was dead. She grabbed it from me and said “Yes, it’s dead, that’s good!” but I think really it was stunned, and not dead. After I found two, the same little girl was very excited for me and exclaimed, “Aye, Laura, dos pescados!” Some of the fish are actually a little bit dangerous (either with sharp fins or sharp teeth) and when the kids found one of these they would squeal and then smash its head with a rock before throwing it in their bucket. I was having a hard time walking in rubber boots, but all of the kids were barefoot. One little girl carrying a bucket of fish slipped on a rock and spilled out all of her fish. I scurried to help her pick them up since I remember a similar instance in which I spilled a huge pail of blueberries. Even though they eat a lot of meat in Ecuador, they don’t eat meat that doesn’t have bones in it, because they want to feel like they are eating the animal. There is something to be said for being connected to your food, and not having that disconnect there. Kids in the U.S. often don’t know their chicken nuggets actually come from a chicken, or their hamburger from a cow.

As far as other creatures go, I already mentioned some, but I am currently living harmoniously with tarantulas on the porch, bats in the roof (fruit and insect bats, not carnivorous ones, though apparently the only way to tell the difference between the all-black bats is to catch them in your hand and look at their faces and teeth, which I am not about to do) snakes underneath the house (it’s raised from the ground so I don’t have to worry about them coming inside, I hope) and of course mosquitoes, mama cockroaches, giant( praying mantises, ants, wasps, moths and lots of butterflies—though here, I guess they are not giant they are normal size.) Unfortunately I don’t have pictures of all of these critters yet, but my photos for this week are going to be the pictures of critters that I do have. When I mention one of these being in my house I am always told to kill it with the machete—I keep one under my bed—but as my friends know, I’m basically unable to kill things so I’ve stopped telling people that I find things and hope that they will just fly or crawl away, and they usually do, though there’s a mama roach that has been here for a while.

 My favorite food here is probably plantains because they are so diverse. You can eat them unripe or ripe so that they are savory or sweet, and you can boil, mash, grate, fry, grill, and drink them. Yesterday morning I made a drink with sweet plantains. It is a traditional breakfast drink, and it is basically just boiled sweet plantains, and then you mash them together with the water they are boiled in. Tonight I made mashed unripe plantains, which was one of my favorite things so far because you cook them, then mash them with sautéed onions and butter. This is served with a fried egg. (Eggs are a staple protein.) Every two or three weeks they have pizza night here in the community, probably mostly for my benefit. Some of the adults like pizza but they only like it with meat on it (chicken, ground beef, salami) and the kids don’t really like pizza. In fact, sometimes some of them will cry when it is pizza night. I made chocolate chip cookies one night, and even though I didn’t have all the appropriate ingredients (they don’t sell baking soda in Ecuador because it is used in making some drugs) they were still a big hit. 60 cookies disappeared in about three minutes.

I’ve been doing well, reading and writing, learning some simple skills like washing clothes in the river so that they are actually clean, and working on Spanish, but I was sick for a couple of days. I think it was either something I ate or some stomach bug I caught from the kids, but last Saturday I threw up 13 times between 3 AM and 1 PM the next day, which is more than I have thrown up in the past seven years combined. At 1 PM a shaman who happened to be passing through came to cleanse me. I can’t say if it helped me or not, but I can say I didn’t throw up again after that. Shamans don’t like to tell people they are shamans because if something bad happens within the community people tend to blame them for it, but some of the older shamans (this man was in his 90s) still associate themselves as such. I have a lunch date today with a girl from the city who is working on her English. It will be interesting to see the differences of daily life.ImageImageImageImageImage

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July 20, 2012

I have had a request to show more pictures of where I live, but I also want to show pictures from a hiking/camping trip I took through the rainforest, so I will post a lot of photos this time. Hiking through the rainforest is really tough because not only are there normal obstacles like steep inclines and long drops, but there are also things like really slippery and deep mud (I have almost lost some shoes), trees with poisonous spikes (which I made the mistake of grabbing to catch my balance), and giant poisonous bugs, like the wasp I encountered, which was the size of a sparrow, and which flew into my leg and felt like someone had thrown a rock at me. I also went into a canyon that was very dark like a cave, and had a lot of bats living in it. I can’t even begin to remember how many different types of mushrooms I saw but here are some colors: red, purple, yellow, white, brown, black, orange. I also went rafting…but I won´t talk too much about that because my mom will probably read this. I came back alive and that´s all that matters

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July 14, 2012

I wrote last time about feeling guilty, but in a lot of ways I am also very envious of people here. For one reason, people are able to live much more sustainably. They eat food grown from their gardens, make juice and tea from the trees growing around their houses, and get a lot of medicines from plants in the rainforest. The river is clear and cold, and people here can bathe, wash clothes, and brush their teeth in the river without being wasteful or using electricity to power washing machines.

Even though the grade school is very under-funded, the kids have a richer experience in many ways, such as the opportunity to have a bilingual education (Spanish and Kichwa) and even trilingual in the high school (Spanish, Kichwa, and English). They have traditional Kichwa dance classes, and smaller class sizes (10-15), and all this in a school that only has an 8-square-foot library, 7 to 8 open air classrooms, and three toilets that the kids have to bring their own toilet paper to use.

The kids have the forest as their playground. They knock leaf-cutter ants down from the trees, go on expeditions to find sloths, slide down rocks in the river on just their bottoms. They are also always showing me strange insects. This place is an entomologist’s heaven, and I am enjoying that about it. Even though I have a lot of bug bites all over my legs, I have also seen a giant praying mantis, beautiful butterflies (mariposas) and all sorts of strange beetles and spiders. I actually feel comforted by the tarantula living under the porch.

I am still working on Spanish. The little girls here are always braiding my hair, so when they find gray hairs they ask me why I have white hairs. I wanted to make a joke with them, so I tried to say “I’m an old woman” in Spanish (Soy vieja) but I accidentally said “Soy viejo” (I’m an old man.) I realized what I said after I got some really weird looks…but at least I have two more months to try to make another joke.

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July 12, 2012

I don’t have too much time today, because I am in town planning for a birthday party tonight. I do want to say that I feel somewhat guilty. Even though I don’t have much money, and I don’t even have a prospect of a job when I go back to the states, I have never not had enough money for a birthday cake, or been living with people who didn’t have enough money to make me a birthday cake, and I know there are a lot of people here who are in that situation. A girl in the community is turning 19 tonight, and I am helping out, so she will have a cake and a new soccer ball at least. Everything is going well, and I will post new pictures as soon as I can. I miss all of my friends and family!

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