Sunday, July 18, 2010

A More Comfortable Skin

It turns out I had 3 complete weeks in Vilcabamba and as it turns out I needed all three. After passing the 10 day mark, the water system installed and seemingly working properly we started on the back wash area. This project was one that more or less finished the house construction, the concrete pad and water/drainage points were already there and had been for 4 years. Miguel found for me a bit of a strange maestro but together with young Roberto and Fabricio the outer wall went up quickly, then the sink support walls and then the shower wall.

Interesting moments came up along the way as they always do when building in Vilcabamba: for example putting consistent and similar ‘waves’ in the wall seems to me to be straightforward, just put a brick in the right spot, chop off the top corners and fill in with cement, the waves should turn out more or less uniform? Too simple perhaps, and clearly such an easy way to do it takes from the creative edge so our wall has waves that are all different! Next came the problem with the shower wall. I had explained to the maestro that it needed to be parallel to the wall he had just built for the wash area, and square with the walls of the bathroom. Well, I was in the house most of the morning, the lads built the ‘enconfrado’ (frame) and around 11am commenced with putting the rocks and the cement in the frame. It looked good from far but when I came out at 11:30 dios mia!

Vicente’s Dad was up hanging about as he often did and he saw the look on my face and saw as well that the wall was clearly about 10degrees off quadra…I mean it was really not parallel with anything in the nearby universe. Before I could say much to the maestro V’s Dad took a tape measure and calmly measured from one end of the frame to the wash area wall and then the other and then looked up at us all and said, ‘si, no es quadra’! What was pretty unbelievable is that no one had said anything, not Roberto, not Fabricio, not even Vicente although he may not have been watching too carefully. I was clearly pretty heated asking the maestro what he was thinking to have put the wall crooked even after I had been pretty clear about ‘quadra’ and ‘parallelo’. Fortunately for all the fix was quick, as Fabricio noted I had come out just in time because the wall was less than a metre off the ground, we all pushed in the right places and it came square. Whew.

The last anomaly in the wash area building was in the rocks. Pretty funny really but our old burro man who I must have given nearly $1000 when we were building had recently acquired a truck and so was now delivering rock faster and cheaper. We asked for a metro (I think it’s a cubic metre) of small-sized flat rocks….twice we got a metro of big chunky rocks and finally 2 metros of useable rock. Who knows, we probably were suffering from being gringoed…a local verb referring to being ripped off because we are foreigners…and it has to be said, the Italians with the new house up the hill from us paid $100 for just about everything they received even though, for example, truck load of rock should only cost $50. Anyway, Mr. Burro-man came to my door at 8am on Sunday morning (itself a bit weird) hat in hand asking for $40 (the rock costing $10/metro). I gave him $20 with the agreement that because he wouldn’t take the 2 metros I didn’t want they would be mine. Now on one hand it means I got 4metros of rock for $20, half the going rate, on the other hand it means I forked out $10 more than I needed to fork out since originally I had only asked for 1 metro of rock! Gringoed!

under construction

The valley has so changed in terms of how local providers view foreigners and the money thing. It is pretty clear now that foreigners have money and part with it far too easily. Before, when we were building, it was sort of in control and more or less controllable by building relationships, using interlocutors, friends, etc. But in 3 years and mucho building that has dissolved somewhat. I think that with a bit of savvy a foreigner can still do okay in the valley but you really do need to know the proper prices in advance and even then….you’ll pay more….somehow. I think now, sitting on the plane home, I should have given the Mr. Burro-head 10 bucks and gone back to bed.

The back wash-area and outdoor shower look pretty spiff I have to say. The ‘pagoda’ style roof is a hit and it looks pretty cool (just repeating what others have said). And, its not expensive and puts a sort of ‘modern’ spin on what is otherwise a traditional back area. Painted white but with stone it is a nice place to be and should make doing the laundry a better experience. Of course a washing machine would be nice and some way to put power back there. Ooops, forgot about that! Where there’s a will there’s a way and someone will figure it out if they want it.

So what about this more comfortable skin, the title of this input. This last week that I have been here it has felt like I’ve slipped into a more comfortable skin than the one I was in…so what is that about? I’ve had a chance to reflect a bit and consider what is probably going on but don’t think this is conclusive because it ain’t. Just the ramblin’s. Certainly part of what has happened is that I realize here that people like who I am and want to get to know me better and want to have conversations and want to tell about themselves. Now theres a lot wrapped up there but one of the things I have notice (as I unpackage all this) the majority of the people are three things quite similarly minded (in terms of the environment, social consciousness, etc), they are pretty good listeners….and older than me. Contrast this with my situation in KL where I am a bit hard pressed to say who (in terms of friends) is similarly minded, who is a good listener and who is older than me….actually it’s a list of one, you know who you are.

I was lucky to have come to Vilcabamba when I did and to have become liked by some of the good people in the valley (as opposed to some of the weirdos although I think the weirdos like me too), somehow I am one of the ‘medium-timers’ (as opposed to ‘old-timers’) but certainly not one of the newcomers. I am glad I laid a bit of e-groundwork before coming, my arrival didn’t take many people by surprise, everyone knew we had two kids, lived in Malasia (so the selva-telephone) works well. The pictures I had sent were a big hit and I must remember to send more. Being of this group (the medim-termers) is good. Its good at parties to be part of the gang and its good one on one because in a way we have built a bit of history and further to that we have built some rapport between each other; shared jokes, shared knowledge, shared stories. Its nice and I suppose what I am trying to say is that there is a sense of community and further to that it would follow that it is this sense of community that is so attractive to me. I feel more attached to people in Vilcabamba than I do to people in Kuala Lumpur. Wow. I said it. I don’t know why it is that I should feel this way, perhaps it is the ‘likemindedness’, I mean lets face it with few notable exceptions most people in KL (and Edmonton for that matter) have no way of relating to either the broad sense of being inherent in an international lifestyle, my sense of the global environmental and my broad social conscience. Even my own sister doesn’t think educating her kids to recycle is important while I worry constantly about the profundity of my carbon footprint, Zaki at 2yrs 4months already has a carbon footprint way beyond his little years and even in KL where the obsession with plastic is in full-swing, we reduce, re-use and recycle like mad.

I had conversations in Vilcabamba about how water has memory and how this relates to the Buddhist idea of inter-connectivity (and the art of science revealing philosophical truths), about how impermanence ‘has to’ be relevant to relationships (and how it has nothing to do with relationships at all). I talked with people about what is called agricultural political economy about simply political economy, about environmental economics and about the South American trend towards social democracy. There was talk about the meaning of happiness and how that relates to being our own personal sense of being productive. There is a lot of talk going on about the insensitivity of the incoming US crowd particularly towards the local economy and certainly towards the population. This manifests as an arrogance that is hard to tolerate; the reaction of the local extranjeros is to ignore them, the reaction of the local population is to ‘gringo’ them. But the point is that the conversations are informed and intelligent and with a passionate dimension that colors in the background….how many of these conversations do I ever have at home (besides, when we have time, with my lovely Cecile)? Zero. 0. None. Nada. Never. And this is a bit troubling and part of what I suppose troubles me in Kuala Lumpur.

It’s a bit funny the spontaneity in Vilcabamba, in a way its as if people have been waiting for someone to come along who will listen to them. I think people like John, Roland have lots to say and normally have no one to say it to so I come in as a welcome ear, English speaking, interested. To their credit the newcomers (at least the ones I met) are also an interesting crowd, I mean you pretty much have to be somewhat interesting to have simply found the valley and then to decide to buy and/or build and live there. I think part of the problem with the newbies is that most are from the US and therefore as opinionated and are not really very good listeners which makes it less likely that they will be listened to. The language dynamic is also interesting. Until recently it was incumbent upon everyone to communicate in Spanish, now though, at those places in our small where people gather to chitchat small groups of US people sit and talk loudly in English, intimidating to locals and other language speakers alike.

Somehow also in Vilcabamba, the work that I have done and that Cecile is doing is respected by people. That’s interesting too in the sense that folk are folk and all should somehow be able to grasp what being a humanitarian worker is about but in KL certainly people seem so much less interested in the fact that what we do is for the greater good. It may be that many have such mundane jobs that they don’t want to consider that others actually have interesting work or that their job is part of the global problem (those in resource exploitation) and they don’t want to know about people who are part of the solution. That said we do have some friends who are in interesting work, Katherine’s husband, Stephan, Susheela and there are people in commercial enterprises who we like. Odd too that while in both Vilcabamba and KL we are drawn together with others mostly because we are all expats but somehow in Vilcabamba that is a lesser reason for coming together rather than a greater reason. And of course it has to be said it has become easier to be friends with locals in Ecuador than in Malaysia and this also makes for a more comfortable time.

Leaving Vilcabamba after only 3 weeks was a bit of a drag. I felt like I was just getting into in (or it was just getting into me) and it was time to leave. On Thursday amidst rumours of landslides and indigenous peoples protests blocking roads I got very worried about getting out of Loja. I was leaving no room for error taking the bus to Guyaquil on Sunday before flying out on Monday morning and it seemed like a good thing to be worried about. Fortunately I had the wisdom to seek counsel from some local wise men and their attitude was I either left on Saturday (allowing a day for screw-ups) or I didn’t worry about it. With the impending arrival of the self-named Gypsies on Friday night, to leave on Saturday was a bit of a non-starter and so I was left trying not to worry about it. Of course, there was nothing to worry about but Friday could have been much more relaxing had I decided earlier not to think about it….somewhere in there I realize that I had felt the need to worry or be stressed…something interesting to think about.

Somewhere in there too, as much as I know it would have been hard to be there with my two little muchachos being so small and needing so much supervision, I wanted the anticipation of my trip home to be about their impending arrival in the valley rather than my departure from the valley. It is a great place for little kids, boys especially, the wilderness, the freedom, the security and safety. We will make plans to go back once Zaki and Kasem are a bit more independent. The easy access to the internet has changed things a lot, the mobile phones require a whole sociological study in their impact and Supermaxi in Loja making available such variety of food and other things has sort of ‘upgraded’ the living standard to one that makes it feel more comfortable to live in Vilca with little kids. So much has changed in only three years, to go back there in another 3 years feels to me so unthinkable now but then considering how fast the past three years have slid by, perhaps it will be that long before we get back.

One thing for sure, next time I go I will not be alone!

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