Gandoca Site Visit- 22 June 2010

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Sunday I leave for Gandoca. My weekend has been the usual round of expeditions into the city, drinking at the hostel and conversations about going out (but not necessarily making it anywhere). It’s a Sunday and it’s father’s day, so the reception staff suggest I phone for a cab.

I arrive at the bus station and realise Norv was right. I have been here before. I recognise the bus station. I do a few circuits of the station and don’t find my comrade Charlie. I buy two tickets and as I turn away from the ticket booth I see Charlie arrive. He looks a little tired and tells me he has been drinking with his father last night- in lieu of father’s day today.

The bus ride is rocky but uneventful. Despite hoping to practice some spanish with Charlie on the way down- he plugs his Ipod into his ears straight away. He is asleep within seconds. When we arrive, he makes a phone call to Doña (the president of the women’s organisation and turtle project). She sounds worried because nobody has arrived. We wait. We call. We wait some more. We phone again. An hour later I can no longer moderate Charlie’s anxiety. He makes a final phone call. We are told they have looked for us twice. It’s true we went to the other phone and then to the supermarket. But the town consists of three streets and we were almost always in visual contact with our meeting point.

I have my doubts about the truth of this. It is Sunday, and generally people don’t work on Sundays. I am even more suspicious when the taxi we eventually get in over charges us. As a gringo I am always considered a human cash machine. I give me the shits, but my Spanish isn’t good enough to argue. And I am nervous and don’t need an extra excuse.

The ride is on a badly maintained dirt road. I am already thinking about how inaccessible this community is. Not great for business.

Charlie says very little which makes me even more nervous. I would initiate a conversation myself but I have already determined I don’t understand this guy. And when I get to the community, I don’t understand Doña either. I do manage to say ‘I’m not understanding things right now.

On arrival at Doña’s house we discover we are staying in separate houses. I’mnervous. I won’t have my Spanish life line. Charlie knows I am nervous but reminds me it will be a good opportunity to practice.

However this is short lived. When I arrive I am told my house mother lived in Australia for 10 years. I tell her I need to practice my Spanish and we chat in Spanish- covering the basics about where I am from, my family, my work etc. But as soon as her husband arrives he only speaks English to me. I try little pieces of Spanish but he doesn’t follow my cue. I give up and resign myself to English for the evening with the same mixture of relief and disappointment that I always feel.

In the course of our conversations, I discover she is originally from Fiji, but he is Tico. They met when he was working in Fiji but then he moved to Australia. They are Australian citizens and their children (4 of them) were born there. They have been here 19 years now, but are so obviously excited at having an Australian come to stay.

The house we are in is actually a holiday house. An open air living room with small kitchen, toilet and bathroom are downstairs. Upstairs there are two bedrooms. She has already put the mosquito net on my bed, and there are fans. Thank god. It’s really humid.

Turtle patrol starts at 7.30, but I lose track of time and don’t leave until 7.25. We have been given bikes to get to the beach. It’s dark and the road is full of potholes. I am gripping the handlebars for dear life. My knees are flailing about either side of the handlebars because the bike is too small for me. Berny tells me later the house father says to him- ‘she must walk very well. Her legs are long enough’. I can’t help chuckling to myself.

Tonite we are patrolling ‘sector A’. It’s the area closest to the township and right next to the hatchery. I go on first patrol. We walk the beach looking for leatherback turtles but find nothing. The moon is shining. The sand is black and I need to concentrate to distinguish the undulating surface in the darkness. It is low season now, but they say they have had a few turtles come to lay eggs last week. So at the very least we should see them hatching.

I practice my Spanish as we walk. Paul’s massive smile shines out from under the raincoat. He is being very patient with me. I am so relieved. It also occurs to me, that some might consider this environment a little romantic. All the people on patrol tonite, besides Doña are young men. My team is going to be mostly women. My risk management head is working overtime.

It starts raining early into our walk, and continues to rain heavily throughout the night. When I get back I am soaked through. I’m glad I wore my quick drying pants- even though I am being bitten by mosquitos through my pants…. I also wonder how the team of girls will feel about that.

We chat the night away in turtle patrol headquarters. It’s really just a tarp, some chairs and a whitboard. One of the guys is sleeping in the chair. I make a little wave dance with my hands in front of his face to see if he is awake or not. I get some laughs, which of course only encourages me. Charlie talks way more than I do but I follow along with the conversation not saying much. Doña is there on and off throughout the night. I chat to her a little, grateful that she is initiating the conversation. I am trying to decide if it’s harder or easier in the darkness to understand people. I can’t see their face or body language, but there is nothing to distract me from the words either.

Unfortunately we don’t see any turtles, but I feel confident and happy that we have made some friends. At midnight we make the treacherous ride back through a sprinkling of rain. We are joined by one of the patrol members who chats happily with us all the way home. I don’t really respond. It is taking all my attention to ride in a position that doesn’t make my crotch more sore than it already is, and avoid riding into a pothole. I manage to grunt a few responses to direct questions, but not much else.

The house mother is awake when I arrive. She wants to know all about it. I am happy enough to give her the blow by blow. We have organised to meet Doña tomorrow at 10. It sounds late but now it’s almost 1 in the morning. I ask for dinner at 8.30 so hopefully I can get some good sleep.

It is ridiculously hot but the fan is very noisy and the walls are thin. I decide against turning it on.  I also don’t know if the other place will have fans and I don’t want to become accustomed to something I can’t have for the whole project. It’s too hot for sheets so I am glad for the psychological barrier the mosquito netting creates. I make a mental note about getting some sleeping shorts.

I must be more tired than I realise, because I manage to fall asleep despite the solid layer of sweat forming all over my body. Of course having my own room, without a train hurtling past at 6 every morning probably helps too.

In the morning I have fresh mango and papaya juice and gallo pinto (a particular kind of beans and rice). It’s practically my favourite now I have adjusted to the diet. Charlie shows up at the door on the bike he has borrowed for the duration of our stay. I realise I am already on Tico time, because I am not ready.

I hurry myself up and we go to Doña’s house. As Charlie starts asking questions I begin to realise I should’ve prepared a little better. I follow most of it but I am not formulating sentences at a fast enough rate to participate fully. I have to stop him a few times to translate, but it stops the flow of the conversation. I am concerned about both the impact on the relationship and the perception of my Spanish. I don’t want them to underestimate my Spanish either.

Doña identifies turtle patrol and English as top priorities- something that some of the leaders last night already suggested. Charlie agrees to classes everyday before I even have a chance to input. Hmmm. We need to do something differently here. Luckily Doña takes many phone-calls during our meeting which gives us time to reflect, confer and consider what else we need to ask.

I am concerned about making any formal agreements at this stage. We haven’t even met our team members yet. I would like them to have some responsibility for planning and decision-making. Also, the things they are identifying are definitely both urgent and important, but won’t necessarily leave the program or individuals in a better situation. I am interested in exploring some sustainable development opportunities. That requires time for investigation, planning and development. In addition, as it currently stands Doña has us patrolling every night. I don’t know about the volunteers but I need a day off. Charlie suggests Saturday- as that is the day he won’t be around. I was hoping for another day to avoid the ‘drinking in the bar’ situation. We aren’t supposed to be drinking on project. It is especially important on this project because there is an American volunteer program nearby. The volunteers there get drunk and hassle the locals frequently. We want to distinguish ourselves as different to that.

At the end of our meeting we organise to go out to the laguna. We really just want to scope the town and consider our risk management plan. But we aren’t going until 3.30. At 2.50 Charlie turns up and says he got a call from Gladys. We need to be at the beach at 3. There is something going on with the nests. I am a bit anxious because we needed that time to do our plan. Nevertheless we have already agreed through Charlie so we go.

The beach is really busy when we arrive. There are many new faces and they are digging up the eggs from the hatchery. Apparently they should’ve hatched by now but they haven’t.  They are pulling out eggs in the hundreds. Most of the shells are soft, some are cracked and some look rotten. In the holes, there are a few hatchling turtles. They swimming through the sand to the surface, but are battling through the many unhatched eggs. In total about 8 small turtles wriggle to the surface.

I feel like I should do something but am not sure what. On Charlie’s request I take some photos to document the process. The boys ham it up for the photos.

For data collection, they open all the eggs to find out why they didn’t hatch. They categorise them as infertile, fungus infested, insect infested or partly developed. I can’t always tell the difference, but they seem to recognise the difference.  It’s sad to see almost developed turtles that never made it out of the shell- though there are very few of them. Mostly they are fungus infected or infertile. No wonder turtles lay so many. Seems just getting born is tough in turtle world.

After turtle nest emptying, we head back for dinner.  One of the young guys follows us. He is joking around saying he is Australian and needs to leave tomorrow. He hasn’t learnt much Spanish, but he can speak a little. It’s hilarious given he is speaking with a strong Tico/Carribean accent. He also asks about help with his English homework. He is joking and laughing about it. I’m not sure if he is serious or not. And if he is serious, does he want me to help or do it? I manage to avoid giving an answer.

Charlie likes Mate and has brought his tea with him. I suggest he comes back to the house to drink it. His homestay is full with babies and children –  not exactly the centre of peace. It also gives us a chance to debrief. My homestay parents listen absently but add information or approvals at appropriate intervals.

At 6.30 I rush Charlie out the door. He has only 30mins to eat dinner now before we have to go to patrol. At my dinner my homestay parents say they are happy about the conversations we have been having. They think we are having some very important conversations and are pleased about how we are taking things on. It’s reassuring for me. I’m getting more excited.

Not long after I finish eating, my friend from patrol arrives. He is joking around again, saying in perfect English that he needs to go home tomorrow. He wants to go via the beaches in Colombia. He really liked it here, though it wasn’t always safe. I wonder what other travellers he has been speaking to. Everything he says is something I have heard from other travellers.

When I go to Charlie’s homestay, (where our patrol friend is also living) he is still eating dinner. There is a very small baby living in the house. She is sleeping on mum’s chest. We all ride down together. As I swerve to avoid the potholes full of muddy rain, I am concerned about collecting one of the boys tyres. I drop behind but my friend is yelling for me to hurry up- in English and in Spanish. I am too embarrassed to explain why I am hanging back. My bike riding skills, especially on this ill-fitting bike leave a lot to be desired.  Perhaps I will suggest we only walk on project. If the team members ride like I do, there will be an accident for sure.

Charlie and I go have a new patrol leader tonight. We are going to ‘sector b’ at the other end of the beach. We weave our way through the mangrove and rainforest that lines the shore. I am slapped in the eye by a low hanging aerial root. ‘Hey- gimme some warning at least’ I yell.

We arrive at a meeting of a river with the sea. The laguna has formed small rapid where it meets the ocean and is looking less than inviting. Our leader grabs a long bamboo-like branch and pokes it into the water. He tests multiple locations. After about twenty minutes and most of the accessible shoreline covered, we get the signal to head back. ‘We are not crossing?’ I ask Charlie. No it’s too deep he says. We need the boat. Apparently we don’t have the key to unlock the boat. So we head back down the beach. As I walk I am also braced myself for the return walk. At headquarters, we sit while our leader wanders off- I presume to get the key. He eventually returns and sits down with us.

I can hear the thunder claps rolling in from the ocean. Every few minutes the sky lights up. The clouds cast shadows across the sky. Next time I turn around, our guide is asleep- along with the members of the other patrol. I ask Charlie- so ‘we are not going back?’ Apparently we are out of time. It is an hour to the other sector and it’s no longer worth the time. It seems odd to me, but I am here as a helper so I accept the decision.

Instead I lie back onto the bench seat. I am surprised to find I can sleep. I doze on and off for most of the shift. Tonight I have remembered to wear my longs, but it’s so humid. I can feel the layer of sweat on my stomach. It’s almost comfortable if I just don’t move. I check my clock and also notice it is 28 degrees at 10.40pm.

Our shift finishes as the rain stops. Our friend rides home with us again. Again I am concentrating so hard I don’t really hear the conversation.

My house mother emerges again when I get in. She wants to know all about it, but I just want to sleep. I don’t want to appear rude so I let her know what happened. She is upset about the boat. Apparently it has happened before. It’s just not good enough she says. It quite reassuring for me as well.

In the morning I awake early but really do not want to get out of bed. House father is our taxi this time, so at least we have a fixed price. The parents drive us there, give us warm hugs, thank us, and tell us we will be back soon. Charlie is struck by the genuine nature of their farewell aswell.

We take a walk around Sixaola. Despite what the people in Gandoca say, I see no internet and the shops really only have the most basic of requirements. There is no bank there, but there is a pharmacy. On the way out we see the clinic. That’s our nearest doctor and emergency health care professional. It’s smaller than my GP’s surgery in Red Hill, and yet in this context the white washed walls, the bars on the doors and the people walking in and out for their appointments inspire confidence in the facility.

The bus trip is longer than anticipated.  The main road is washed out. I must be adjusted to latin life because this doesn’t even register as an issue. Of course, I don’t need to be back on time. Poor Charlie however was hoping to be home to see the girl he likes, get some work done and some study. The girl has been getting annoyed with him because he has no time for her. He is working, doing this student placement and has exams and assignments due. I suspect she thinks she is getting the run around. I know what he has on his plate I wish I could help somehow. He even thinks he can do some work while on project. I think he’s setting himself up for a lot of stress.

He swears when he hears the news about the road. I feel badly for him, but there is nothing we can do except relax.

I however am excited about the project. I also have a growing awareness that it might be a hard community to leave. They are all so sweet and a lot of fun. And with ideas running through my head about the project, I know there is plenty of work to do.

When I get back to the hostel, it’s like I was never away. My latest round of favourite faces are gone, but it still has the same feeling.


The orientation period- June 18 2010

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I must admit the days are starting to blur into one. Wednesday is the first day of training at the organisation.

The coordinator asks me first thing how my immigration office visit went. When I say that it was unsuccessful she just shrugs her shoulders. So weird! We decide that we will wait until after the site visit (Sunday – Tuesday) to decide what I want to do.

Wednesday I also meet the local leader who will be joining us on project. He’s an Administration student at the University of Costa Rica. He is softly spoken and asks lots of questions with a seriously concerned expressions on his face. He is at least 4 inches shorter than me. He completes all his paperwork very conscientiously. He does however talk about didgeridoos, yoga and playing the guitar. I’m thinking there is a free spirit in there.

Wednesday’s training starts with an overview of the project and community. It’s in Spanish. I get the gist but not many of the specifics. Despite my disappointment, most the other topics are too important to cover in Spanish. Maybe it’s good that the training is in English. But it’s now almost 3 weeks since I was speaking any Spanish in a substantial way.

I’m not sure if I am reassured or disappointed that our training is a combination of things that I have taught before. There are no surprises really so that’s a great thing. The only thing that slightly concerns me is a Costa Ricans need to involve themselves in your life. Hmmmm. Not sure how I feel about that. We cover all the risk management stuff, leadership roles within the team, reporting requirements. It’s clear as we proceed that our other leader hasn’t had much preparation. It makes me a little anxious. I am given a budget, but with no real understanding yet about what I am going to, I don’t know how reasonable or unreasonable it is. I am given a budget for my own expenses during my stay in San Jose. The coordinator suggests it works out to 5000 colones for food and 500 colones for transport per day. I do some calculations in my head and realise I am yet to spend less than that since I have been here. Hmmm. Will need to adjust a little.

At lunch time a group of us goes to the local store to fetch our takeaway. I chose casado. It’s typically Costa Rican. Beans, rice, a meat of your choosing (cheese for my comrade, he’s vegetariano) and a small salad. It’s better than Ecuador- only because there are some vegetables.

And the world cup continues. I think I have seen ¾ of the games now. I always barrack for the Latin American teams. Afterall, Australia isn’t a country worth talking about in the world cup. After the 4-0 defeat I want to defect to New Zealand at least- if only temporarily. I suggest to the locals that any country that can’t call a game by it’s proper name possibly doesn’t deserve to win.

On Thursday I walk to work. I haven’t had any proper exercise since I got to Costa Rica and the nightly beer drinking is making me lethargic. It takes about 45 minutes but is a real challenge. In many places there are no foot paths though, so there are some very dicey sections. I persist anyway and despite there being rain most afternoons, I make most trips without getting wet.

On Thursday afternoon, I mention to the new director that I am a friend of Norvan’s. He looks at me with a surprised and bemused expression on his face. He was his program coordinator. He tells the other staff who know him and soon he is the centre of our conversation. The administrator tells me he had one of the most difficult projects in their history. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Somehow I am not surprised. Norv has had a few times in his life where trouble has found him, often a lot of trouble. I hope it doesn’t find me- but I guess I have to wait and see.

Our training days are quite short. And slow. This isn’t exactly a fast paced environment. In fact it’s mostly a little boring. We talk about cultural differences but I don’t mention this. The touching is one thing they mention, and I must admit it makes me a little uncomfortable. I try to assure myself I will get used to it.

The coordinator shares a lot of things with us. One of them is that the community usually identifies more strongly with the local leader. I understand, though am a little disappointed to realise that. We don’t cover any youth or community development info in our training. I am unsure about what my comrade knows about it- if anything. It makes me a little nervous, though I am reassured by his openness to the whole situation.

Friday morning I wake to find that half my food is gone. I had left a bag of food on top of the fridge. I didn’t want them in my room because they would attract rodents and insects. I didn’t want the in the fridge, because I didn’t want them cold. I remember seeing one of the staff cleaning out the ‘food to leave’ shelf last night. It’s right next to the fridge and I think she has thrown my food out. When I ask the front desk if this is possible, she admits that it is. Fuck!

I’m unreasonably upset about this. I walk to work and hope I can find some food on the way. As I walk I get more upset. I’m worried about my co-leader. He has no experience and yet he is going to get to spend more time and have a better relationship. I’m worried about my food budget and how I can get it to go further. And I really hate that my food has been taken. In a world where I own nothing and have ownership over nothing, the loss of a small bag of food hits me hard. I feel tears in my eyes and though I know it’s silly, I can’t help being upset.

Luckily when I arrive at the organisation the activity and the busy-ness is a welcome distraction. I manage to forget about my morning very quickly by telling the story in Spanish. It requires my concentration and offers up new challenges.

Friday is scenario day. The coordinator offers up some real and fictional examples to check how we intend to respond to various situations. Some of it is a test of policy- abuse of alcohol (preventing normal Australian drinking habits), avoiding exclusive relationships, wearing ‘longs’ to prevent malaria. Some test of community interaction- what to do about local politics, responses to difficult events in the community.  Some are more generally about safety, like evacuation options .

Luckily, my comrade and I mostly agree. But when it comes to a young person stealing he gets a little authoritarian. I suggest that if a young person is old enough to steal he is old enough to have a conversation with us about stealing. He wants to talk to the parents as a first response.  A desire for natural justice makes me want to talk to the young person first. He notices my passion for the topic and backs off. I’m pretty sure though that he is not agreed.

Of course, I am hoping none of the scenarios actually occur. But I am also realistic that an issue free project would be an absolute Miracle.

Hanging in SJ- 15 June 2010

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Saturday night there is another crew gathering in the kitchen/bar. There is one guy with a really strange accent. He sounds kinda Australian but I’m not sure. When I ask about it he explains lived in Australia until 10 but then Japan, the US, Indonesia and a smattering of other countries. He’s skinny and tattoed but seems a little awkward. I can’t quite work him out but he seems mostly harmless.

He has befriended an Austrian. He’s a loud, and not very secretive pot-smoker. There are a few new faces around the table. Scottie is still here, but leaves tomorrow. He’s broken out the rum again. Seems to be a theme for my time away so far…. There’s an English girl who is doing the same as Scottie. They are both lawyers about to start the law equivalent of a residency. They are travelling for a few months before settling into their career. A Canadian girl is talking about her articles for a paper at home. I’m very jealous of her work, and quiz her incessantly about how that came about.

As the night is warmed by alcohol, plans are concocted for our night expedition into San Jose. We move to the bar/restaurant in the hostel compound, and despite it being empty the Austrian and I start dancing. The Canadian joins us, but all others remain at the tables lining the wall. It serves as an extended warm up for the evening.

‘El pueblo’- the village, is supposedly the place to go. It’s an enclave of bars and clubs set behind large white-washed walls and an ornate gate.  We wander around the maze of open air corridors connecting the various clubs. A few times we need to reach for the boys sleeves and pull them back as they try and enter what are actually strip clubs.

We find a small bar at the back of the complex. It’s crowded and smokey. There are lots of girls in ‘stripper heels’ and the Costa Rican equivalent of ganstas and rappers. The music is a mix of hip hop, regaton and old-fashioned rock. It is chosen because there is no cover charge. The Austrian is the only one who seems to be impressed with our choice. Perhaps because he is stoned and chatting up a couple of ‘chicas’.

We don’t tolerate it for very long. The Canadian girl is sure she has heard some electronica that is more to our taste.

We go in search and retrace our footsteps. In the furthest corner (but next to the street) we find a large but empty club. The ministry of sound logo is being projected onto the walls. There is some house music playing. The smiles on our faces are automatic.

It doesn’t take long before we are all up dancing. We have plenty of room on the dance floor and we use it all. The Austrian especially. He has a dance style akin to Peter Garrett- all arms and wobbles. I respond in a similar way to viewing the surrealist prints. I am watching incessantly trying to figure out what and how he is actually doing. Somehow he seems to be in time, despite appearing otherwise.

Soon he is dancing up to me. I manage to synchronise my movements, but it feels unnatural. I keep moving away, but he keeps returning. I don’t want his attention. From behind me, I feel a hand around my waist and realise it’s him again. Now I physical push him away. ‘I’m not American’ I say.  He says ‘neither am I’. I am making reference to the American ‘booty dancing’ but he doesn’t understand the reference. Going back to basics, I just say- ‘I don’t like to be touched. Back off’. I can see from the expression on his face, he thinks I’m being a prude. But I don’t really care. The music is good, and I’m enjoying my own dance world. When they start mixing in salsa and jazz tunes, I am in my element. There is a fusion of styles being employed and I’m having a blast.

I am however starting to overheat and am forced to sit more than I would like to. Didn’t need to wear jeans in 90% humidity…..

Unfortunately Scottie is starting to feel unwell. He wants to go home. I’m not quite ready, but some of the others have taken pills. I know I won’t have their staying power. I cut my losses and go.

I wake early. I’m instantly annoyed. I spend the day organising, but am not really productive. I try to be enthusiastic about writing, or Spanish, or anything. Nothing sticks. About 5 in the afternoon I start writing my back log of blogs. I finally settle in and don’t stop til 8. Then I only stop because I am really hungry.

When I join the crew from last night there are some new additions. In particular a girl from Buffalo. They are making plans to go out again. She is really keen. But even if I didn’t have to fix my visa stuff tomorrow, I still wouldn’t be interested. I make my excuses and go to bed about 9.30.

In the morning everybody is gone. The posse has moved to coco beach. The hostel is empty and it’s raining. I get online early because I am waiting for a response from the program coordinator. She responds about 10 and then just tells me to come into the office.

After a better taxi ride than Friday, I arrive to a warm welcome. When I show her my passport she ums and ahs and then takes it in to the new director. The administrator who is in the meeting with him gets on the phone straight away. She is talking to immigration who tells her that the amount of time in the country is based on the interview at the airport. ‘What interview?’ I say. ‘All they asked me was how long are you staying. I said 10 weeks and then they stamped my passport’. ‘Yeah- that’s the interview’- apparently. Great!

It seems I have two options. I can apply for an extension. But it costs $100 and they rarely come back before you are meant to leave the country. The other option is to leave and return. Our project is really close to the Panama border, so it would be easy to do. Except that I need to be out of the country for 72 hours. We look at the calendar and realise that I would need to leave in week two, because the other leader has University on the weekends. Not exactly great timing.

Oh well! Welcome to Costa Rica…..

In the afternoon, the retiring director suggests we go to the airport. There is an immigration office there and he thinks we might get a different response in person. I think it’s worth a shot but ask the program coordinator to come too. I think the locals/organisation will have more weight than a random traveller.

Monday night is Tuesday morning in Australia. And it’s Dad’s birthday. I manage to Skype them. I’m having a cranky pants day so it’s so good to speak to them. I manage to catch Juan online too.

Tuesday I take a bus to the airport. The program coordinator can’t come because she is dealing with something else. So despite my meek protests, I go independently.

The process goes smoothly but I don’t get the result we hoped for. I am told she can do nothing to help me. The immigration officer’s decision is final. I am annoyed but without more advanced Spanish I am limited in my negotiation skills.

I return to the hostel and all is quiet. It is pissing down with rain again. I have a little cabin fever. My latest round of companions have left once again. Luckily my computer connects me to the outside world, otherwise I might go stir crazy. I am so ready to do some work. It seems 2 months is about my limit.

Touch down, San Jose, Costa Rica- 12 June 2010

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There is a small tico man waiting at the airport with a backpackers sign. I see him as soon as I exit the airport. He escorts me to a seat and tells me there is someone else we are waiting for. We wait for 45 minutes before the Scottish man shows up. The driver starts laughing. They were expecting a ‘Cubano’. His flight was coming from Havana.

We chat all the way into the hostel, get some food at the dodgy bar next door, chat about our work, his girlfriend, our travels, have a few drinks  and watch the basketball. But an early night is needed. We agree to meet for breakfast.

I’m on the top bunk. The bed wobbles as I ascend. It shakes with every turn. My night’s sleep is only marginally better than the previous.

I contemplate breakfast at the dodgy bar/restaurant next door, but decide I’d rather look for street food. Scottie and I walk the city. It’s actually not as shitful as I remember.  There are some nice shops and some seemingly nice places to eat. What more do I need really?

This hostel has a kitchen. I really want to go to the market and cook something up. It’s funny the things I miss being away from home. The market is at the other end of town. It’s a maze of stores, not unlike the central markets in Adelaide. Except it’s dirtier, and smellier, and the produce is quite different. The hard cheeses are ridiculously expensive. I can’t find any kind of cured meats I would be prepared to eat. But there are spices, fruit and veg, and even a herbalist.

The shop keepers speak to me as I wander through. I don’t understand anything. Momentarily I think that maybe I am just not hearing them, but as the day wears on I get less and less confident about my Spanish.

Nevertheless I get back to the hostel. I have a chat with Norvan and feel marginally better. I also make a call to the organisation, as I have promised. The Program Coordinator chats sweetly and then invites me to the leaving BBQ for their director. I’m eager to meet people so I’m appreciative and relieved.

The phone card runs out before I finish the final conversation but nevertheless I get organised and hail myself a cab. The cab is unfriendly. Again I don’t understand what he is saying to me. Not even a little. I interpret gestures and guess at my responses. I figure if I keep talking I’m bound to hit upon something important. Still, I’m sure I’m being taken the busiest way.  It is however 5 on a Friday arvo, so perhaps there is no easy way.

The sign on the door is the only way I can distinguish the office from the family homes on the street. It’s been converted like a lot of NGOs in Australia. My heart is thumping and my stomach is in my mouth.  I manage to introduce myself, including name and my intended role. I then walk through to the main office. There is a large white screen ready for a public viewing. Natalie greets me and shows me around the office. She introduces me to people. My mind is clouded by anxiety and most names I don’t remember. I speak spanish for a while, but when I start to stumble the staff switch to English.

I listen to the conversations only to discover that I am back to understanding about 20%. It’s incredibly disheartening. I wonder what I can do to make it better in only 5 days. There is a feeling of panic. I’m aware I’m not being very sociable as a result but I can’t help it. There is an ‘intern’ there from Memphis, and I spend way to much time speaking to him.

At least the people are friendly. They don’t seem concerned about my Spanish at all. As usual my expectations of myself are way higher than other people’s.

And the food is great. I’m really into the bean dip. Their BBQ is tortillas cooked on an open grill. And I’m starving. I don’t partake in the beers. I’ve been warned off drinking because of the yellow fever vaccination, and I don’t not want to make a dick of myself on the first day.

The leaving presentation is lovely. The Coordinator has put together a short video presentation. Members of the board are there aswell as the staff. As messages from participants, staff and board members scattered around the globe are shown on the screen, we all have tears in our eyes. After 8 years, it’s the end of an era. He’s quiet and unassuming, but very warm and personal with each person. I’ve haven’t heard one bad thing about the guy.

By 8.30 people are heading home. The Coordinator offers me a ride home. Knowing my experience with the cab on the way here, I am more than grateful. She suggests I am welcome to come to the office on Monday, if I don’t have other plans. I must be a nerd because I’m excited about this. ‘I might just do that’ I say. But still check what time I need to be at the office on Wednesday.

So it’s Friday night and I’m home by 9. And I’m happy about it.

The next day I try for some shopping. I have realised that there are a lot of things I haven’t bought in preparation for project. I had actually forgotten about that since I left Australia. Instead I get caught in a tropical downpour. I walk home in the rain. I am completely wet through by the time I get back to the hostel.

I also discover that there has been a theft in the hostel. Someone’s money and passport was stolen from their room. I remind all the other residents of my room to keep the dorm door locked. Just to reassure myself though I take out my passport and check everything is in order.

It’s a new one and the pages are still crisp. I marvel at the distinctly Australian images on the pages. I think it’s a great idea. And then I read my stamps in my passports. At least I get stamps in Latin America. It could be half full by the time I leave. That’s an exciting prospect. Then I actually read the little stamps. The Costa Rican one says 30 days in the country. 30 days!!! My project is 10 weeks.

I write an email to my Coordinator immediately, even though I know I won’t get a response until Monday. I hope this is easy to rectify……

Onto Costa Rica- 10 June 2010

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The rest of my stay in Quito is pleasant. My Danish friend studied Spanish here and knows her way around really well.

We go to the markets on Wednesday morning. I manage to find some earrings I wished I had purchased in Cuenca, and a sun hat.  The sun hat is necessary for project. I do however miss out on a set of jewellery I love. I bargain too cheaply and insult the stall holder. It wasn’t intentional. I get 20 and 30 mixed up in my Spanish. And just when I was getting good at the whole bargaining thing!

Bargaining at markets really doesn’t come naturally for me. I’d rather just have a price. Then I can decide if it’s worth that to me or not. Good to develop a new skill I suppose.

Wednesday evenings is Ecaudorian night at the hostel. They have themed food and Andean music. It’s basically pan pipes, and the food is chicken with satay sauce and yucca mash. Doesn’t seem very Ecuadorian to me, but it delicious nonetheless. We order some beers, listen to some music and have a pleasant night.

I go to bed about 10.30 and tolerate the people slowly coming through the room for the next hour. I do however not tolerate very well people moving in and out of the room all night. I think I awake every hour and at 3.10am I can’t return to sleep. I notice my throat is a little sore and my nose is running. I am awake for more than an hour. At 7 I am wide awake again. I lay there for a while and then resign myself to getting up.

The shower is cold. It’s the third day in a row the shower is cold. When I order breakfast, my order is forgotten. I chat with my Danish friend for a long time before she goes off to see the equator. When I go to pack my bag, two of the volunteer staff are in bed together- in the bunk bed underneath mine.

I’ll just be happy when I get out of here.

I decide to take the hostel car rather than negotiate my own cab, even though it’s more expensive. I’m not sure I have the energy for that battle. He decides to pick up extra people on the way- interrupting my first Spanish practice.

When I arrive at the airport, the guy at the entrance checks my passport. He asks if I understand Spanish. I reply with my now standard response- yes, but I speak very badly. I think he tries to tell me I look good, but I’m not sure. And I don’t really want to hear it anyway.

I then have a very long and strange conversation about entering Costa Rica. Initially I think they might be concerned because I have a one way ticket. But she switches to English when it is clear I have misunderstood. It seems I need evidence of my yellow fever vaccination. I don’t have it. It means I need another one and evidence of it right now. My god!

They give me a name of a local private hospital and I go straight there. I talk to three secretaries before I get to the doctor’s office. Front of house, Doctor’s secretary and the fifth floor reception. In my best Spanish I explain my situation each time, remembering more words as I go. Out of breath at the doctors office the Spanish is harder. Luckily though she speaks English. Thank god! I say I definitely don’t have enough Spanish for this.

It doesn’t take long. I don’t tell her about the suspected cold I am getting. But am annoyed at the idea I might have some fever in 4-7 days time. It will be right at the beginning of my training in Costa Rica. Just awesome!

I do however manage to get a cab back to the airport once more, and have a lovely chat on the way.

So now I wait at the airport to board my flight. And discover that Quito airport has wifi. Small mercies are nice sometimes.

The sleep over, Quito- 8 June 2010

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When I get up in the morning, I tackle the question of lessons again- without success. I also manage to get a map but wait for 20 minutes to check if I can walk safely. ‘It’s fine- just keep your bag in front’ she says. Sounds really fine! Apparently the buses and trolley cars are just as bad for thieves so I’m between a rock and a hard place.

As I am now accustomed to, I get lost. We’ve had a run down at the hostel about various scams. I am determined not to be a victim. Someone tries to help me in the street but I keep walking. I sneak into various stores to check my map. The shop assistants are sometimes confused, sometimes congratulatory and sometimes annoyed. I don’t care. It stops me from being a target. It becomes a game I play with myself about how safe I can be. I’m just really conscious when I am on my own.

I arrive at the hostel shortly after 12. It’s good to see them, but somehow different in a new environment. The energy of the group has shifted.

As we walk to the bus, I notice straight away that the Australian is not spending any time with Anna. She tries to speak with him frequently. He always entertains her interest momentarily and then starts a conversation with someone else. I half expected them to be quite the little couple, but I guess he’s in travelling mode. He doesn’t strike me as a very ‘couple’ kinda guy either.

The equator is as you’d expect. A line on the ground. There is of course the wrong one and the right one. We go to both. The wrong one was established by French scientists, but when GPS was invented they realised they were about 250 metres away from the actual equator.

There is a small tour at the museum for the real equator. They tell us about the local habitat, animals and people in the area. They do little ‘scientific’ tests that demonstrate how the earth’s magnetic fields work. We are however merged with a group of Americans for our tour. We are all horrified by the idea, and even more so when we begin to suspect they are a church youth group on tour. They are so wholesome. And even more so in comparison with our motley crew.

The Americans have sweet smiling photos beside the equator, holding hands and leaning into each other. We wait to take photos later. The English couple have a photo in a mock sex position. Anna does a yoga pose on the equator. The Australian doesn’t have a photo. It’s just not that important apparently. Spliffs have been brought to smoke at the equator.

Happy with our little expedition and with half the group having the munchies, we stop for food as soon as we get back. The crew have managed to find an Indian place so some head there. The boys just want hamburgers. They stop at the corner for ‘bacteria in a bun’.

Anna, Sonia and I go to the Indian. Anna proceeds to quiz me about ‘Australian men’ once more. I know who she is talking about. The conversation is familiar. Sonia eventually says ‘are we talking generally or about someone in particular?’ She makes her confession. I’m really wanting to skirt around the subject. I’m not confident that he’s actually interested anymore. I don’t have the heart to tell her that though. I make some hints, but don’t want to push it.

We go back to their hostel after eating. Monday is rum and coke buckets. There is a massive pot in the lounge room. I join the crew despite a large sign on the door saying no visitors. I sit quietly for a while, but when nobody asks me to leave I help myself to a drink. It’s so strong I’m not sure I can drink it. But I do. And nobody tells me to leave. Then I help myself to another, and another.

Chatting away to other travellers, time slowly creeps by. Soon it’s 9pm. Most of the crew are quite drunk, including myself. I begin contemplating the logistics of my situation. I could get a cab now, request an escort before it gets too dangerous (or the crew get too drunk to move). I could stay but sober up and grab one myself. Or perhaps I could hang around and get myself a bed.

Of course when I ask the Australian for advice, he says – stay, and just help yourself to a bed. I must be drunk. I think the idea is grand, despite my feat of being in trouble. When I ask the English girl she suggests sharing the Australians bed. He has a large bed. It could easily fit two. I don’t respond to that one, but think that is probably not a very nice thing to do. When I ask Anna, she says the same thing. Except she offers her bed to me, suggesting she can share. That makes sense, except I am uncertain how willing the Australian is.

We discover the pool table out the back and the party moves there. There are many more other people there now and the vibe is cranking. It’s only 10.30.

At 12 in the evening the pool table is shut down and we move inside. Gradually we drift to bed. At the Australian’s suggestion, I go to Sonia’s room. We know there is a spare bed. It also means I avoid the group politics. I crawl under the blankets. It occurs to me I might be found and kicked out, but figure it will be daylight then. It might be embarassing to be found, but it’s safer to stay.

My guilt however gives me a fitful sleep. I wake feeling crusty, tired and self-conscious. I have no clean clothes and I haven’t showered. I’m trying not to be noticed.

Today we are going to the Otavalo markets. We are leaving early. I am delighted when I get out the door without anybody asking questions. And I promise myself I won’t do that again. It gives me a bad feeling in my stomach.

The market day is a bit of a logistical nightmare. I’m sure my patience is limited by lack of sleep. The group loses patience waiting for the first bus and decides for cabs. The Australian, the English couple, and the other Canadian girl jump in the first one that arrives. I am a bit miffed because I am in a cab with 3 people again. The cost will be a whole dollar more per person than the other cab.

The first cab is long gone by the time we negotiate a fare that isn’t a rip off. When we get to the regional bus terminal, the other half are nowhere to be seen. Anna, Hannah and myself are wondering whether to wait or not. The bus company guy thinks he’s seen them already but insists they are American. No Americans in our crew!

Anna keeps saying how she will be so pissed off if they haven’t waited for us. I know she’s probably a little sore with the Australian for ditching us in the first place. I suspect she would’ve liked him to make an effort, spend more time with her. I also suspect it is the last straw in their stunted romance. Later that afternoon she talks about heading for the coast. Maybe even tonight.

After about 20 minutes waiting at the bus terminal we decide we have to keep moving. We don’t really know what else to do. Either they have gone ahead, or they have a dodgy cab driver. Either way, it doesn’t help anyone to wait.

We have a bus ride from hell. The bus lurches into the gutter at one stage, tips towards the wall of rock along the side of the road. The bus tilts and comes within centimetres of the cliff face. My face is only centimetres on the other side of the window. After that, every little acceleration, noise, and movement of the bus terrifies me. Anna manages to sleep through the whole thing. But Hannah is sitting in front of me tapping the seat nervously.

When we get to the other end, we turn the block in the middle of town and see the other half of our crew walking up the street. Apparently their cab was really fast, but bus was really slow. They left the station at 10. We arrived at the station at 10. All is forgiven.

The markets are great, but I don’t buy much. There is some amazing jewellery. But I’m not really tempted by anything else. I’ve been hearing about the really cheap prices in Bolivia and am now thinking that will be my shopping hub before going home. This attitude is enforced by a lack of funds on my cash passport. When I check my bank account I discover my money isn’t cleared yet. Damn!! I think about borrowing money, but decide against it. It’s just more stuff to carry really.

I spend most the day walking round with Hannah. Hannah doesn’t have much Spanish, but a long list of things to purchase. We wander around together and I elaborate where her Spanish fails. She picks up a lot as we go too. So by the end she is having little conversations and stories with the stall holders.

The Australian, despite saying he’s not that into markets, is the last to emerge. The English couple make fun of him. We do a show and tell of purchases and then head for the bus.

The Australian sits with me on the bus, and says nothing to Anna. I’m a little annoyed for her, which makes idle chit chat a little hard.

When we arrive back at the station, the cab ride is again a drama. We also discover that this is not where the other half got dropped on the way. The drivers say the journey home will be $7. The Australian says he paid $2 this morning. With hardly any money in my purse I immediately get anxious.

We debate about turning the meter on in the cab or not. The Australian says that’s what we will do.  Once in the cab though, Hannah gets anxious. The English couple have joined us. ‘Who has Spanish?’ they ask. ‘Nina does’ Hannah responds. She wants the meter off, but I say we’ve already agreed and I won’t renegotiate. Mostly I think it will be cheaper because this morning was $5 with the meter. In the end, she uses a few words to get him to turn it off. I’m annoyed but not certain enough to fight for my position.

By the end of the journey I’m feeling a little frazzled. I want a shower and a bed. And I have only $5 in my wallet. It’s enough for dinner and a taxi if I’m smart about it. They are making plans to go out that night, but I say my goodbyes. It’s 5pm already so I hustle home to make it by dark. I’m also hoping I can sign up for dinner. It’s supposed to be done before 5 but I could be lucky.

It’s much quicker now I know where I am going. I get home before dark, and I manage to organise dinner. As I do so, my Danish friend from Baños finds me. She has been able to get a booking here. She’s befriended a girl from my room, who is now asking me for the story of why I didn’t come home last night. I wish I had a more interesting story to tell.

Arrival at the Secret Garden, Quito- 8 June 2010

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I bought a ticket for a flight from Quito to San Jose, leaving on the 10th. That means Quito is my last South American stop. Also, thanks to shifting exchange rates the flight has actually cost me more than $800. Ouch!!!

I have booked myself into the secret garden hostel. Everyone raves about it. But I am anxious about Quito. It has a reputation for being very dangerous. Tourists are a target. Trepidation!!!

The German and I are both leaving at the same time. We get the bus together, and then a taxi. I’m very happy not to be doing it on my own. And it’s the first experience I have where it seems my Spanish is better than someone else’s. Or maybe it’s just my confidence. I buy bus tickets and negotiate with taxi drivers. He continues through to other bus terminal. He is getting a connection to Bogota, Colombia.

‘The secret garden hostel’ appears as a giant set of green doors in a very large wall. There is a buzzer. When I ring it, the door swings open but there is nobody there. First thing I find is the toilet. Grateful!!!  I wanted to go before getting on the bus. That was 5 hours ago.

I’m wandering around looking for reception…… or a person…… or any sign of life. The floors are intricate mosaic patterns. There is a fish pond in the middle with freakishly large goldfish. They must be almost a foot long. There are posters and paintings on the walls. I follow a trail of paintings and eventually find a note by the stairs. It’s written in pink, green and blue on a yellow wall. ‘Reception is on the roof top. There are five flights of stairs. Leave your big bags here and come on up’. Relief!!!

So I make the trek. I am puffing hard when I reach the top. I’m thinking I’m really unfit.  Later I discover Quito is 2800m above sea level. The view is spectacular. The rooftop terrace overlooks the old town. The volunteer staffer takes me on the tour. It’s his first day. In my room, my bed is not made up. ‘It’s ok. I don’t need it yet’. He looks relieved. At the time I mean it. When it gets to 9.30 it’s still not made. I’m no longer feeling so relaxed about it. I want to get in it. Indignance!!!

I do however have a view from my bed.  Through the window in our room and glass sunroom roof I can see half the old town and the oldest church in Quito. I don’t realise this until I wake the following morning. Discovery!!!

After my hostel tour, I look around for my friends from Baños. They are nowhere to be found. This is a really popular hostel, so I won’t be surprised if they didn’t get a booking. I try and get onto the internet to track them down but it’s 3 hours before I can get online. Frustration!!! I ask about Spanish lessons. Every person I ask tells me I need to speak to someone different. That someone different is either busy or not around. Annoyance!!!

For a small price, they serve dinner every night. I sign up for carrot and celery soup and pizza. While I wait I try to pour a tea. The hot water has been replaced by coffee. I find I have made a foul looking tea/coffee combination. Damn!!! Food isn’t served until after 7, but we are required to be seated at 6.30. I haven’t had any lunch. I am grumpy and impatient- and starving!!!. Luckily the food is great once it arrives.

One of the few conversations I have with my dinner neighbours is commandeered by one of the volunteers. I am excluded from the conversation. Sulk!!! Making friends with strangers is just not happening for me right now.

After dinner I do however catch Juan online. I’m very happy to hear from him. We have a skype conversation. I can’t really hear him, nor he I. It’s a friendly face. Grateful!!!

I also get a message from Anna. They are all in a hostel in the new town and going to the equator tomorrow. ‘Do it. You know you want to’ she says to me. I don’t need any encouragement. I agree to meet at their hostel in the new town at 12.

Online, I also find Pozi is across the road in the other hostel.

So far, Outside world-  Awesome!!! Hostel world- Not!!!

Dealing with the bed issue, I am instantly relaxed when I get in. And grateful I no longer need to speak to anyone. Solitude!!!

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