Muddy Adventures with Engineers Without Borders

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May 31st 2016
Published: June 11th 2016
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Game Called on Account of Guava!Game Called on Account of Guava!Game Called on Account of Guava!

Jody & Shana giggle uproariously as a golf ball sized guava drops from the tree above, destroying their almost-finished Scrabble game!
The Month of May started off well -- my skin "oogies" healed nicely and I continued to enjoy my work in fundraising for the Volunteer Children's Library; the BIB Bazar Charity Shoppe continues to have brisk sales every weekend, and the preparation for the semi-annual Garage Sale was relatively painless this time...since Jody & I have been doing the triage of donations bit by bit to separate out the quality goods for the Bazaar (aka bizarre!), everything was pretty well pre-sorted and there were only a few boxes of "stuff" to price. The day of the big Garage Sale, as usual there were dozens of people waiting outside the gate for the opening rush. We had a good group of volunteers to help with crowd control and refolding, reorganizing as shoppers threw things gets pretty wild!

We decided not to open the Bazar the day after the Garage Sale so I took that opportunity to invite some friends over on a Sunday for a Potluck Games Afternoon. As the guest list mounted to 12, I figured out how to set up separate playing areas for Scrabble, Cribbage, Backgammon & Boggle. Alas, I should be used
Flo & PatFlo & PatFlo & Pat

Safely under the overhang of the house, these gals enjoy a lively Scrabble match
to the fact that folks here just don't stick to commitments; during the morning of the Games Day SIX (!!) of the invitees punked out, so in the end we were only 6 players (with tons of food!). A good time was had by all and since it was a lovely day, we set up three tables outside. Jody & Shana enjoyed the shade of the guava tree...until falling fruit torpedoed their Scrabble board. Oh well, they just started a new game!

Karl was a bit bummed that the last minute cancellations included the only two other guys invited, but he's getting used to being the only male at many gatherings! He had recently learned to play Cribbage, so after a few rounds of Scrabble several of us moved inside to the big table to help him refine his Cribbage strategy...lucky guy! He got to learn from the best! When I'm in the US I play hours and hours of Cribbage with my Dad -- here they play cutthroat...if you miss counting any of your points, the other player can "crib" you and steal the points you missed! Dad & I play compassionate Cribbage, in
Cribbage & BoggleCribbage & BoggleCribbage & Boggle

More games at the kitchen table -- Cheer up you two!
fact he often catches me on points I fail to see!

Still full from the Fun & Games luncheon, the next morning Shana and I drove up to Quito. We stopped at a favorite place for lunch, Cafe de la Vaca. Shana's meal was so large that she was able to take away enough to have dinner that evening! After dropping her luggage at her place in the valley of Tumbaco, I took her to her doctor's appointment before heading on to my own. Every six months I have an intrauterine echo sonogram to track the growth/development of a plum-sized growth that has encapsulated my left ovary. Since plums are called "claudias" here, I have named her "Claudia".There is no "vascularization" (blood flow) to the mioma/fibroid/tumor/teratoma (pick one; it's been called all of the above!) and her growth is very slow, with minimal calcification. SO, since I'm not experiencing pain or bleeding the current determination is to just leave Claudia alone. Surgery will only become an option if there's rapid growth or change. I trust my doctor and feel good about the care that I'm getting. I do sometimes feel freaked out about this thing
Loading up Scarlett the TruckLoading up Scarlett the TruckLoading up Scarlett the Truck

Robert, Matthew & Maeve help reposition luggage and shopping to make room for two passengers in the truckbed as well!
growing in my gut, but mostly I just don't think about it.

I headed up to Quito to settle into my hostel and clean up in time to meet the next group of volunteer Engineers for dinner and drinks. While I was in California, I'd had a Skype meeting with the four students who'd be travelling with the University of Maine Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (Nat, Matt, Ellie & Maeve), but I'd not yet met the two chaperones, Robert & Karen. We all enjoyed a lively evening, chowing down on typical Ecuadorian cuisine. The volunteers were staying at a hostel a few blocks away from mine, posher and double the price. They came over to take a look at my place and said they liked it even better than where they were staying. That night at 3:00 am there was an earthquake that woke me up and got me out of bed. The hanging plants in the courtyard outside my hostel room were swinging and swaying and crashing into each other. No one else had stepped out of their room, so I went back and tried to fall back asleep but was hyper-aware and
Stuck in the Mud!Stuck in the Mud!Stuck in the Mud!

Just 25 km from the town of Quininde, it took us 3 hours to get to El Descanso! Why did I believe them when they told me the roads were "good"?
felt my bed keep shaking. At dawn I got online and the Instituto Geofisico said it was a 6.6 quake followed by 7 aftershocks over the next hour, decreasing from 5.6 to 3.8 points. The epicenter was less than 100 miles from the village where we'd been working.

In the morning I made contact with the volunteers; most of them had not even felt the quake!) They were trying (unsuccessfully) to contact someone in the village to make sure everything was OK and we should go ahead. Then we got word that the road we needed to take was partially closed by a landslide. The report said that one lane was open and that traffic was being held for 10-30 minutes at a time for dirt removal. I identified where the slide had taken place -- a good four hours from Quito -- and felt relatively certain that the road would be cleared by the time we got there, so we made the decision to leave that morning as planned.

Since there were six of them and only four could fit in my truck, we loaded up everyone's luggage and
Typical Wooden HomeTypical Wooden HomeTypical Wooden Home

Of the 30+ wooden homes in El Descanso, only two were badly damaged in the big Apr16 earthquake whose epicenter was about 60 miles from town.
Robert & Matt took a taxi to the bus terminal. The plan was to meet up in Quininde, the last large-ish town before the village where we'd be working. Since my truckload of gals was likely to arrive at least an hour or two before the guys, we decided to stop at Tucanopy for a zipline adventure. Just as Nina was getting ready give us the safety talk, a big metal sign fell from the wall and everything started shaking and the birds all started chattering loudly. Nina hustled us to the middle of a grassy field, away from the building and the trees. Almost instinctively we formed a tight circle and wrapped our arms around each other. It was an incredible feeling to be out in nature during an earthquake; the ground actually rippling beneath our feet...almost like lawn surfing. I had the distinct impression that the earth was alive, breathing & exhaling as she expanded and trembled. Needless to say, we didn't go on the canopy walk or the zipline; they would have to inspect for safety after a shaker like that! We all wondered, what if we'd been up there in the treetops during the earthquake?! Later
Breathtaking ViewsBreathtaking ViewsBreathtaking Views

From the main road in El Descanso you can see range after rolling range of lush green hillsides
we learned that it had been a 6.7 quake. Not knowing what we'd find, we continued on our way. We came upon a minor landslide that was just being cleared as we approached...we didn't have to wait too long.

We stopped in a few towns en route so Karen could take money out of an ATM, but no luck...we were told that all banking was shut down because of the earthquakes. We paused for snacks along the way, and I loved the students' enthusiasm at each new taste treat. My previous work with EWB has been with the Denver/Boulder professional chapter and many of the volunteers on recent visits have been retirees, a few too many "crusty" old men set in their ways. How refreshing to work with wide-eyed 20-somethings this time! In spite of our leisurely pace, we still arrived in Quininde before the bus. I pulled into the parking lot at the AKI supermarket and while Karen did some last-minute shopping, the others helped me to rearrange the bags in the truck bed. For the last 25 km of our journey, two people would be riding in the back along with the luggage.
Clothesline with a View!Clothesline with a View!Clothesline with a View!

Miraculous how these housewives manage to keep clothes clean! Even the woman on the political poster is amazed (looks like she's sticking her tongue out!)

We still had several hours of daylight left as we set off for El Descanso village...little did we know then, we wouldn't be arriving until almost nightfall! Fifteen minutes north of Quininde we left the asphalt. Gravel gave way to mud which gave way to even deeper mud trenches that could barely be called a road. Bottoming out in deep ruts, trying to find the best option in an all-but-impassable road. One particularly gnarly uphill patch had me worried -- I hung back as the truck ahead of me stopped to put chains on his rear tires. Now I've seen snow chains before...but mud chains? Two-thirds of the way up I got stuck and was spinning my wheels and burying myself deeper. I backed up down the hill and tried to start up again (several times), but the squelchy brew kept sucking me into the deep wheel ruts. By now the engineers had gotten out of the truck, and the driver of a pick-up behind me (he couldn't get past) offered to take the wheel to get me through. Yes, please! He made it through, but just barely!

Humbled, I
Abraham's HouseAbraham's HouseAbraham's House

A mile before town, this is where our main contact lives. Abraham is coordinator for the 33 communities which are located within the Mache Chindul Reserve.
more gently, slowly and eventually successfully made it to La Y de la Laguna. We were supposed to meet a community organizer there, and he arrived on his motorbike shortly after we did. I was shattered! The young-uns took off for a hike to the Laguna and I settled into a plastic chair in the shade of one of the half a dozen shops in downtown La Y. I bummed a cigarette off an older gentleman (my first in 9 months!) and enjoyed a cool coconut water while breathing deeply and watching the goings-on. Rural farmers came to weigh & sell their sacks of dried cacao beans (the main crop in that area). The plan was for me to leave my truck in a locked garage there in la Y and we'd be driven the last stretch in a heavy 1975 Ford truck with chains on the wheels. When the hikers returned we had a quick lunch, off-loaded the baggage, and I stashed Scarlet in Victor's garage (between the broken-down pool table and the rusted-out washing machine).

I gratefully accepted a seat in the "cabin", while the others piled into the back of the truck.
Our Digs + Soccer Field/MudpitOur Digs + Soccer Field/MudpitOur Digs + Soccer Field/Mudpit

We were housed in the old wooden schoolhouse - at the edge of the squelchy soccer field (daily rains!)
Victor's side had no door (made it easier for him to jump out and assess mud traps) and the "dashboard" was a bunch of wires hanging down with a scrap of worn carpeting along the top. This man & this vehicle safely transported us along 10 km of deep, sticky could hardly be referred to as a roadway! Some maneuvers made if feel like we were riding the crest of each mud trench...I could only imagine how they felt in back! We arrived in El Descanso at early dusk and were shown to two big wooden buildings up on stilts (former school bldg & teacher's house). They had divided the larger bldg into four semi-private cubicle bedrooms, and the smaller bldg had three. The same wood plants that made the half-walls also made beds, each to be topped with four cross-planks and a thin foam mattress (after 2 nights, my aching back, I begged one of the students to trade me their real live mattress!). A few of the teen-aged girls came to introduce themselves and help us assemble the beds and hang the mosquito nets.

It gets dark quickly near the equator, twilight
University of Maine EWBUniversity of Maine EWBUniversity of Maine EWB

Four young engineering students captured the hearts of all the kids in El Descanso (light-up frisbee, rubics cube, muddy soccer, etc.)
is a brief blink of the eye. Several of the guys from the village were scrambling to finish the wiring -- they had promised the EWB volunteers electricity. Each room had an outlet and an overhead hanging bulb and once there was light they dragged a large wooden table and stools into the entry/common area. Like magic, dinner appeared on the table. We learned that a different family was to provide meals for us each day we were there. The meals were simple but adequate - many times we were invited to the home of the family providing our food, and it was a great experience (for me and the others!) to get an inside glimpse of how people live in this part of the country. The homes are all built of wood, up on stilts since rains most every day for at least for a few hours. The cobbled plant constructions bend and sway, much as a boat does out at sea, so there was minimal structural damage even though the earthquake's epicenter was not far away.

My main job was to accompany two of the students to interview each family about their water
Treacherous ApproachTreacherous ApproachTreacherous Approach

Heading up the path to this home to interview the family, the knee deep mud almost sucked off one of my boots!
use & needs. We asked a series of questions and most everyone was kind, helpful and forthcoming. I did most of the talking - Ellie wrote down the information; she understood a lot of the responses, but was hesitant to speak. I started to put together the "family tree" of El Descanso - basically three families (one with 9 brothers!) The village's teacher accompanied us on some of the interviews and gave me some insight; his father was one of the first to settle this rainforest valley almost 50 years ago. The profe's been encouraging this most recent generation of young men to seek wives outside of the community -- definitely some signs of inbreeding among the folks we met.

On my rounds the the gals we also measured rooftops, figuring the angle of the pitch for possible rainwater collection. We chatted with almost half of the village's households, the homes along a 1km stretch of the main road. It was essential to wear rubber boots -- the approach to some of these homes was slippery and boot almost got sucked off my foot on one ascent! Many times we chatted with women as
Obligatory Rubber BootsObligatory Rubber BootsObligatory Rubber Boots

Even to go just 10 ft to the bathroom we had to struggle in and out of the black rubber boots - slimy mud at every step!
they were washing clothes at the pila washing stone (or in one case it was a hubcap straddling two tree stumps). Breathtaking views of impossibly green hillsides stretched as far as the eye could see-- truly beautiful countryside.

After a week in the village (no showers, just a cold bucket of water over the head) we were all ready to head back to the city. The volunteers had completed research and assessment of the current situation; obtained the information they needed to go back to the university and work with the entire EWB team to design an efficient and effective water system for El Descanso. A wonderful community, they welcomed us warmly and made every attempt to ensure our comfort. The UMaine students formed a fast bond with the kids of the village, and everyone turned out to see us off as we bumped up the muddy road -- this time in a 1970-something Toyota truck. Again I was given the front seat (no upholstery left -- bits of foam over the metal seat springs) and was amazed at the way the whole dashboard jostled with every rut.

Robert had
Highway View of Mt. CotopaxiHighway View of Mt. CotopaxiHighway View of Mt. Cotopaxi

Each turn of the roadway gives another breathtaking glimpse of this snow-capped, conical peak.
thought to bring along one of the two shovels they'd bought in Quininde and we did, in fact, have to use it...twice! Once when the Toyota got stuck and the volunteers got splattered with mud (face, hair, clothes) as they help push it out and again when Scarlett (my truck) got stuck further along the road. I was nervous about my 15 km of the drive out, even more so as it poured down rain in El Descanso the whole night before our departure. Miracle of hadn't rained from La Y (where my truck was stored) onwards, so in the end - despite getting sucked once into a rut and needing the shovel - the drive out felt more triumphant than stressful!

As soon as it was certain that we'd make it back to Quito that same day, I called the hostel and - just our luck! - they had four rooms right together that would house all seven of nicely! I had a day off while the students did a "brain dump" session - "downloading" all that they'd learned and experienced to help the next group have a productive visit. Even though I'd
Otavalan SchoolgirlsOtavalan SchoolgirlsOtavalan Schoolgirls

Great fun to just hand around the local marketplace and nab candid photos.
only gotten about a half a dozen bug bites in the village, for some reason my body went into allergic reaction mode as soon as we hit Quito. Maybe it has to do with the altitude or the dry air, but my whole torso broke out in a massive rash of red welts. Thanks to Karen who dabbed each spot with tea tree oil, they didn't itch too badly (and only took a couple of weeks to disappear). What is it with this gringa skin??

The next day five volunteers squeezed into my truck and we drove up to Otavalo, stopping at the equator monument in Cayambe so they could straddle the line and take goofy photos in yoga poses spanning both hemispheres. While they all swarmed the handicraft market, I made my way to the fruit & veg market - where the locals shop. Otavalo is so picturesque, with most people (even the young folks) wearing colorful traditional dress. The Otavalans are the most well-known of Ecuador's scores of indigenous groups. They have exported their culture all over the world - I remember first hearing the Andean pan flute in 1979 in front of
Otavalan ShoppersOtavalan ShoppersOtavalan Shoppers

So many people, particularly older folks, still use traditional dress in Otavalo.
the KolnerDom (the cathedral in Cologne, Germany) - a group of Otavalans. And at an art fair in Seattle seeing Otavalan weavers and surprising them by greeting them with the few words of Kichwa I knew.

I made my requisite donations pick-ups in Quito and headed back to Banos to resume my work at the BIB Bazar -- our charity shoppe which benefits the volunteer children's library. So glad to get back to my CiCi (although she had a wonderful time with Isis & Sparky at Robin's house!) and settle into a new rhythm here in Banos. Swimming at the hot springs 3x/wk, long walks with CiCi in the hills above my neighborhood, and trying to eat more healthily (lots of fruits and vegetables!) I'm determined to drop some really do it this time - with lasting lifestyle changes! Stayed tuned - hope you'll be seeing less of me in my next blog!

Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


Glimpsed at Otavalo MarketGlimpsed at Otavalo Market
Glimpsed at Otavalo Market

Watching life happen at the fruit & veg market.
Market SceneMarket Scene
Market Scene

Sights, sounds, smells at the market. It's all happening here every day!

12th June 2016

Thanks for your continuing blog. I really enjoy reading about your life adventures, particularly the family stuff! Be well!
17th June 2016

Muddy adventures with EWB
Hi Jill, thanks again for sharing your adventures with us! Your stories are exciting! Hard to imaginge that this is your daily life! Mine is quite a bit different....

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