Friday, September 25, 2009

Life in El Cristal

23 days and now my time in El Cristal is complete and I return to civilization bitten, but not broken, with a more solid appreciation for some of the modern amenities we are accustomed to in America, and a sense of gratitude for the beauty, simplicity, and people of El Cristal.

I´ll miss my early morning walks to school or the fields that gave me the opportunity to see the sun rise and spill onto the lush hills of El Cristal, the clouds that arrived in the afternoon to lend a mystique to the area, and the people and animals that greeted you on every path. The terrain in the Intag region is beatiful and the hills roam on majestically and tirelessly. Blanca and her family were generous hosts and I´ll miss them. Especially little Alexis who became my sidekick and Moreno (one of their dogs) who loyally followed me to the bus on the morning of my departure and searched for me after I boarded.

A few ways in which my time was spent in El Cristal:

Harvesting Beans - It was the time to harvest the beans that were planted earlier in the year and that meant lots of 5 and 5:30 am departures for the fields (all of which were at least 45 minutes away by foot and at the bottom of hill). The beans dry on the vine for the most part and you have to pick as many as possible before the sun gets too strong and the beans burst open at the touch. For frijoles de tierra, you can pluck the entire plant from the ground as there isn´t much but beans left of them. For frijoles de palo, the beans are more vine like and growing amongst downed trees. You have to scale the trees and brush to hand pick them and collect them in your canasto (a woven basket you wear on your back and use to transport things).

After the harvest you bring all the beans to a central location that you prepare that encloses the beans in a plastic lined space. The beans are then spread out to be dried by the sun. During this time you hear the constant snap crackle pop of the shells bursting open and releasing the beans. After an ample amount of solar drying long sticks are used to wack the rest of the beans free from their shells. This goes on for quite some time and there is a pause mid wacking to turn over the layer of beans and give the ones on the bottom a chance at brief sun laden freedom.

Next you pick through the shell remants for any whole pods and shake out any loose beans before discarding the shells. Once the top layer of shells is gone you hand what´s left into mounds then scoop them into bags. After this the beans are cleaned, with the help of a little wind power, by repeatedly pouring them from one canasto to another from about shoulder height. As the beans pour down loose non-bean matter is blown away by the wind. After this is completed you then pick through the remants again to get all the beans out as quite a few don´t make it into the other canasto.

The frijoles de tierra harvest yielded 650lbs of beans which they were able to sell for $38/100lbs. Thankfully the horse carried these (not all at once) out of the harvest area.

The Molienda - I had the great fortune of witnessing a molienda on my last day in El Cristal. The week before I had just finished a memoir by Lisa St. Aubin de Teran called The Hacienda about her experiences in Venezuela on a hacienda that produced panela (the product of a molienda) so I was very excited to see it in real life.

I was without a camera at this point so the photos are ones I found of similar trapiches. The one I saw was a slightly smaller operation.

Vicente Mariano ran the molienda. He was a handsome, fit, and generous gentlemen of about 50 that donned a constant smile and a contagious excitement about panela production. On my arrival I was greeted with fresh glass of cane juice straight from the crush.

It all starts with harvesting and stripping the cane for the crush. Mounds of cane are piled up just outside the bodega, ready to be fed through the crusher. Their leaves have been set aside for drying and will be used later to wrap the final product. As the cane is fed through the juice runs into a small holding tank with multiple filters that empties into a pipe that directly feeding the first of the heated vats of cane juice. The cane remnants are collected, dried, and later used to fuel the fire which cooks the cane juice.

Once in the vats the evaporation process begins. They have names for the resulting liquid at different stages, but I can´t recall what they are. Someone stands at the vats and scoops liquid from one vat to the next as it is ready using a large ladel made of a dried gourd. Once the liquid in the final vat has reached the deisred consistency they pour it into a long vat made from a hollowed out tree. They stir the liquid with a big wooden spoon to cool it and prevent a crust from forming on top. After a few minutes they scoop in into the large ladels and then pour it into molds where it cools and hardens into a disk.

After 30 minutes the panela is hard enough to be plucked from the mold and wrapped (two together) in cane leaves. Ertoful seemed to be the master wrapper in El Cristal and had wrapped well over 100 bundles before I arrived. Once a good mound was ready, we all lined up from the bodega to the truck, Ertoful threw them out of the bodega, and we tossed them to the person next to us until they had all arrived in the back of the truck. I must say it was a very efficient and fun way to get them all on the truck.

The trapiche, site of the panela production, was tucked away in the hills of the cane fields. Over the several hours I spent there many people from the community stopped by for an opportunity to dip their fingers into the fresh panela. They LOVE their panela here (from the looks of it more than their teeth). Most people never use sugar and Blanca claims that panela is much better as it staves off hunger and allows you to work strongly for longer periods of time. I can´t say I´m a big fan of it. It´s good in small doses on occasion, but that´s not the way it´s been fed to me here in El Cristal.

Ertoful with the finished product from a molienda earlier in the year. Each bundle like this is 3 kilos of panela.

La Escuela/The School - Teaching another language to young children when I had a limited ability to use their own language was a rewarding challenge. There were no materials or support so I just had to wing it and draw up my own lesson plans for some basic english vocabulary and phrases. I taught multiple grades, often at once, so the content had to be easy enough for the younger students and interesting enough for the older students. I can´t say that I always achieved this balance.

After the first class of 6-9 year olds I thought, what did I get myself into! They wouldn´t take their seats, they ran around hitting and kicking each other, and were just generally out of control. The rest of the classes that day went much smoother as many of the older students seemed to have a desire to learn some english or at least a curiosity in the strange foreigner fumbling in Spanish before them. I spoke with the head profesora, Rosa, at the end of the day and explained the hitting and kicking going on in the earlier class and asked about whether they had any classroom rules. She rectified the problem with a small lecture and reminder to all the students about proper behavior at the school. Each day thereafter I had 2 to 4 classes that either consisted of one of 5 smaller groups of students or 2 large groups that would combine the smaller groups for a single lesson. In total I had aboout 35 students that ranged from about 6-12. School runs from 7:30 to 12:30 with about an hour of breaks.

My most trying day at the school was with the youngest of the students. Rosa came to that morning and asked me to watch and instruct the little ones (2-5 yrs) as their profesora didn´t show up that day. I gladly offered a yes and asked what they would be doing. Drawings, followed by tearing up tissue paper to make little balls that would then be glued to their drwaings. Sounded fun! Wrong, I didn´t have the language skills to understand or reign in the little terrors. From Saul the Savage manically riding the rocking horse when he wasn´t busy hitting, kicking, yelling, and stabbing (with a pencil, and yes he drew blood which landed him in Rosa´s office) the other students and myself when I trid to stop him, to the silent kid in the back that supplemented his constant flow of snot with glue (yes he was sucking on a glue bottle all day). They weren´t all bad and their were some very sweet kids who were very concerned about doing their work properly.

At recess I told Rosa, ¨No mas.¨ She said after today no more and gave me another activity for the students which consisted of poking pins into an outline of a drawing and cutting paper into small squares. I thought the idea of giving an unruly class of kids pins and scissors was asking for trouble so I asked her to come down and restore some order while I drew the drawings they were to outline with the pins. They rest of the day went by and the kids decided to self dismiss themselves a half hour early. I couldn´t have been more relieved.

The last day I filled with review and games. Bingo for the older kids, 1 game with numbers the other with basic words they had been learning, and Simon Says for the younger ones. Bingo was a big hit, which put a smile on my face because I could see that they actually learned something and those Bingo cards took a long time to make. Simon Says was met with less success, but the kids had a ball and they now know a few words for directions and body parts. The classes ended with chupas I picked up for them and I got some good ol´ english good-bye´s and thank you´s. I was happy. I survived and was even able to teach them a few things.

Walking - Very few people in El Cristal have automobiles and a handful have motorcycles so walking is the primary mode of travel for all nearby destinations. Some folks have a horse or two to help with the heavy lifting of things like gas tanks for the stoves, larger harvests, and other odds and ends. For the most part though you hoofed things from place to place with a canasto.

I´ve carried my share of heavy packs up mountains and into the wilderness, but I tell you...even the most uncomfortable pack is bliss next to 40+ lbs in a canasto. Back padding, none. Shoulder padding, none. If I was lucky I got one with thicker rope that cut less into my shoulders and/or collar bones. I hauled with canastos strapped with the netting of a bulk produce bag, old electrical wires, and nylon rope. I hauled things I never dreamt I´d be carrying and given the location of their house the loaded trip back was always up hill and no less than a 45 minute trek. I carried beans, yucca, potatoes, camote, a piglet (that squealed, squirmed, and crapped the whole way), an old truck tire (to make a feeding trough for the new piglets), panela, plastic sheeting, and groceries.

While the canasto was uncomfortable, I was happy as a clam to be walking about and didn´t mind the loads at all. The paths were always scenic, you got to see other folks in the town, and I was always amused at the plethora of farm life I´d come across. Be it a new mother hen and her fleet of chicks, various cows, horses, or a pig on the loose - it was always a sight.

Food - I´ve probably eaten my weight in beans, rice, and potatoes while I was there. Solid and starchy foods that put a nice layer on you after a while. Breakfast here is eaten early and generally consisted of empanadas with cheese and instant coffee or tea loaded with panela. When there wasn´t cheese it was plain fried bread or thick homemade french fries. Lunch would be had after I returned from teaching (about 1pm) and this was the biggest meal of the day. I´d arrive to a plate mounded with beans, rice, and a little cabbage salad. I always felt like it was too much to put away, but I knew that dinner wouldn´t be until 8 or so I proceeded to clean my plate. Dinner was similar to lunch on rare occasion, but most often it was a soup with potatoes, rice, beans, and some chunks of meat complete with gristle and bones if they had any on hand.
I decided to offer a little of my culinary culture to them and prepared a breakfast for the family one morning. I whipped up an egg scramble with onions, garlic, cilantro, tomato, and topped with fresh tomato and avocado. As a side there was oatmeal topped with fresh bananas and their favorite, panela. The oatmeal seemed a bigger hit than the eggs (the panela may have saved me here) and Jonatan didn´t like either and left for school without having more than 2 or 3 bites. While I would have loved for them to enjoy or like it, I accepted that they didn´t and the next time a got a gristle covered bone with a spot of meat on it I didn´t hesitate to pass it off to a more enthused consumer.
3 things I have a greater appreciaton for after living in El Cristal:

1) Plumbing, and not just plumbing, but a reliable flow of water when you turn on the spigot. Intermittent water was an issue at Blanca´s and at the Hacienda in Picalqui. Having a single water source at the outdoor lavabo (wash station, see photo on the right) meant that you washed dishes, clothes, yourself, and anything else by scooping out buckets of water onto the washing platform. The toilet had a garbage can full of water just outside and a smaller bucket for flushing should you need to.

2) English. Aside from the small vocabulary of kids at the Colegio (Highschool) in Penaherra, I think I taught the only other English spoken in town at the La Escuela de Leon Tolstoy to 6-12 year olds. It was a quiet time and while I learned a lot of Spanish, it still didn´t feel like enough. Conversations were fun, interesting, and challenging. Lots lost in translation for sure. Many folks spoke with a little different dialect which was a challenge for someone like me learning textbook spanish. For example the ´ll´being pronounced like ´y´in Spanish in El Cristal is pronounced like the ´gs´in Gsa Gsa Gabor. While I fully embraced the spanish language and respect that it is their langauge, 3 weeks as the only foreigner in town (I did travel twice to meet up with other volunteers) makes me appreciate the comforts of conversation with other Gringos in Quito.

3) Toilet Paper, towels, and soap. Toilet paper is priceless here. I pack my own roll now and use it sparingly. I quickly learned that the school and most any other place has a BYOTP thing going on. There´s no soap anywhere, in spite of the clinics recommendations to wash your hands after using the bathroom. And towels I found to be pretty non-existent so I pack along my handy bandana for hand drying and face washing. What I wouldn´t give for a roll of Charmin Ultra Soft Double Ply right now.

Thanks to Cody, who brought his old camera to donate to his host community and generously lent it to me before doing this, I was able to capture some moments in El Cristal. Thank you Cody for the great and much needed company, America night in Otavalo complete with a movie in English, and the use of your camera! Buena suerte en El Paraiso!