This is a “slice of life” from a Peace Corps Volunteer that captures the adventures and frustrations of one newly arrived volunteer living in a new culture in southern Ecuador. It is from a “work in progress” entitled “While You Were Out”, by Jerry Redfield. Peace Corps Volunteers, Jerry, Joe Orr of Utah, and Doug Strauss from New York had arrived in a remote mountain top little village about two months earlier as their initial in-country assignment working on a school construction program. This covers the time between the end of that assignment and the transition to a new one. John Smith was the Peace Corps Area Representative, and Steve Caplin, the Peace Corps doctor assigned to the Area.
Round ’em Up and Move ’em Out!
by Jerry Redfield (Ecuador 1963-65)
As November ended and the cold winds of December started to roll in, the time in our initial assignment was thankfully coming to an end. The work was slowing down, due to the lack of the brickmaker being paid on time, and each day a cold, thick fog started to roll in, enveloping everything in sight. Visibility was reduced to about 100 feet. The cold winds necessitated wearing our coats in the apartment on a regular basis, the fleas were still biting and our food supplies were running low. Doug, Joe, and I had been subsisting on tuna and noodles for a while. We decided to walk around to see what we could find and, after hitting every “store” (picture a one-room store front) in this little pueblo, we ended up with a half dozen pieces of bread and two eggs. We mixed up a sauce of tomato paste, tuna, mayonnaise, and parmesan cheese, poured it over spaghetti, and that was what we had for our Thanksgiving dinner.
We were still performing menial tasks and not learning much new about the process, so we were glad to receive a telegram announcing that a meeting would soon be held in Loja to let us provide feedback on what we had learned and receive information about our new and more permanent assignments. We were glad to hear that but had hoped it might be in Cuenca, a larger city with more amenities and opportunities to do some much-needed Christmas shopping. That Thanksgiving Day we received another telegram saying the meeting would indeed be in Cuenca on Monday and that we should therefore leave on Saturday. I was so happy to hear that news it was almost as if we were going home!
We again needed to take the mule route down to Playas. We left the key to the apartment for Doug with the Padre’s housekeeper, Fidelina, as Doug was still working on the road project in Buena Vista back in the hills. Before we left, the priest and Fidelina reminded (or rather, told) us that we should remember to bring back gifts for them. We rode on the top of one of the “mixtos” to Catacocha which proved to be the better part of the trip to Loja. The bus we boarded there was filled with students from a Catholic girl’s school in Macará who sang school songs at the top of their lungs for the three-plus hour trip into town. That, along with the cramped seating guaranteed that I arrived in Loja with a massive headache.
Joe and I left the next day at 9:00 A.M. along with five other area Volunteers and arrived in Cuenca around 4:30 in the afternoon. We met with some of the others for dinner who had gathered for the meeting and learned, with increasing levels of envy, about their accommodations and assignments. They were living in big houses, with hot baths and had contacts with the engineers on a regular basis, and were doing almost no labor on their part. Tough news for us after having been “socking clavos” (pulling out nails) for hours a day, taking cold showers, and eating canned tuna and noodles.
The next day we received the news that our big chiefs could not fly in from Quito due to the cloud cover. That gave us a vacation day!
I asked Doc Caplin if he could give me anything for my flea bites as I was by that time a walking scab. All that he could recommend was taking a hot shower at his place. I took him up on his offer and one really hot shower shrank my myriad of scabs from the bites. We went out as a group to a restaurant, and I was again made aware of the variety of places and restaurants that the volunteers in the Cuenca area could access. The Alaska, our one little “safe house” restaurant in Loja, would never be the same. The Alaska was run by a German ex-pat who kept a very clean operation and offered a “Peace Corps approved” menu that even included ice cream. However, it did not match the quality nor variety available in Cuenca which was, by comparison, a very cosmopolitan city. We checked back in at the office and discovered that the chiefs had still not arrived so we went out to the rental home of Volunteers Chuck Jennings and Tom Roan in Baños, a town that featured natural hot baths from whence it got its name. There were three spring-fed pools with water temperatures between 75 to 85 degrees and about 120 degrees at the entrance. We took full advantage of those amenities in the afternoon. After a month and a half of cold showers, it was heaven. We followed that up in Cuenca with the best dinner I had to date in all of Ecuador. The dinner included Chateaubriand with mushrooms and all the trimmings, all for about $1.75 at the time. It was a welcome and far cry from our fare for the last month in Cangonamá. We wrapped up the evening wandering through the streets with Chuck strumming on his guitar, our group serenading the populace with folk songs, making a quick stop at a liquor store, and partying far into the night at the Doc’s pad. It was all a welcome escape from the last couple of months, even if it had to be paid for with a hangover the following morning when the chiefs finally arrived for the meeting.
It was a very good meeting. We provided our complaints and feedback, asked and answered questions, received some very useful advice and books explaining all phases of construction. In the process my admiration and respect for James F.W. Watson, the Program Director was greatly increased at the time. He impressed me as a very dedicated, energetic, even if sometimes crude, individual. We received our new assignments. Joe got Cera, a small town very close to Loja. I received the news that my new assignment would be “La Toma,” or Catamayo as it is officially called, a town just south and west on the other side of the Andean mountains that bordered Loja. I had been through it on my travels to and from Cangonamá. It was much closer to Loja, and I was thrilled.
We wrapped up the session by doing a little Christmas shopping at the local shops and then bowling at a “serviceable” bowling alley with crude lanes, but it was a great diversion. We returned to Loja the next day and put up at a hotel. Joe arrived the next morning with John Smith and informed me that he was going to stay and wait for his orientation trip around construction sites with the engineer and that Smith would give me a ride out to Cangonamá. I had plans for a bit more shopping and maybe a long-overdue haircut, but a ride with the boss sure beat another adventure on a crowded bus and a slow donkey ride up the mountain. This was the start of what turned out to be the “long goodbye to Cangonamá”.
When John Smith and I got to Catacocha, about two-thirds of the way back, it dawned on me that Doug might still be at his project in Buena Vista and that Joe had forgotten to give me the key to the apartment. When we arrived in Cangonamá I checked with the priest’s assistant and learned that Doug, indeed had the key and was long gone. I informed Señor Espinosa, the man who had told us about Kennedy’s assassination and who lived across the street from our place, about my plight and he graciously offered to let me stay at his place that evening. I gladly accepted. He gave me a room and a bed and offered a meal which he was reluctant to serve as he “knew we ate differently than they do.” I wanted to say, “No, we eat the same things you do, but it’s clean and free of bacteria,” but that was obviously not what I said. No doubt the word may have gone out, as well, that our garbage was full of tuna cans. I sent a telegram to Doug telling him to send the key with someone the next day.
I received a telegram back in the morning informing me that no one was headed out our way that day. I thought to myself, “Well here we go on the amoeba diet.” So far, the meals Sr. Espinosa had provided had all been pretty good. I was just hoping that he had been bringing to a boil the soup and coffee he had been serving. I was giving English lessons to his teenage daughter over the weeks there and spent the afternoon doing that and reading one of the many books that I had brought along.
Jim Snyder and Doug returned the next day at 5:00, but not before I was served some coffee with milk. I found out the milk had come directly from Mr. Espinosa’s cow…directly from his cow. I remembered the Doc’s prediction that drinking unpasteurized milk was a sure route to intestinal cancer. However, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Joe came in around 8:00 falling all over himself for forgetting to give me the key. We set about deciding how to split up our possessions among the three of us so we could pack in as much as possible with Engineer Ruilloba when he arrived with his Jeep the next day.
We stuffed what we could of our belongings into the Engineer’s Jeep and then returned to figure out what to do with the rest of our things…what was to stay and how we could get the rest down the mountainside. We were also packing suitcases for our respective Christmas breaks as well as deciding what would go into storage in Loja in preparation for our moves to the next locations. Meanwhile, the weather was getting even colder and wetter, the workers were angry about having been chastised by Ruilloba and Padre Reyes, the local head of the school construction committee, for lack of progress and the general slowness of their work. (Something we had said in our reports in Cuenca perhaps coming back to haunt us?) Nobody, it seemed, was happy about nuttin’!
The next day around 5:00 I saw one of the maestros, Panama, coming down the hill looking very dejected. Padre Reyes and local honchos wanted him and the crew to finish pouring a beam. The minga (I think a forced “voluntary” labor group) had left at 4:00 and so had the school kids who had been “helping.” They had been passing up coffee can size loads of cement up the ladders. So, Joe and I pitched in, and then, finally, a few of the townspeople (true volunteers) showed up and we used big five-gallon buckets to pass the cement up the ladders. We all worked hard and perspiration was pouring as if we had been in a ten-round fight. Night fell and the lanterns appeared and it turned into a rather fun community event which we finished in good time. As was the custom, it was celebrated with the passing around shots of “trago.” Trago just means drink, but in this part of Ecuador, it customarily means a shot glass of the hot, burning cane liquor (think of a cross between moonshine and Greek Uzo without the anise) that seemed to be the staple of any social activity in Ecuador.
The following day we continued packing up and said our goodbyes over a few beers with the maestros, who finally and reluctantly returned the Peace Corps hammers and saws we had lent them. That evening Doug, Volunteer Jim Snyder (who had been helping Doug), Joe, and I had a very nice dinner with the Padre, Fidelina, and her daughter, Olga. We also gave them the presents that they had requested. They were well pleased with the simple but meaningful items we picked out and we were rewarded by their sincere appreciation. We returned to our quarters and hit the sack (flea-filled) for the last time in this dreary little spot in the mountains.
At 3:30 in the morning, we were awakened to the horrendously loud squealing of a pig that was being slaughtered on a doorstep just up the road from our place. Who knows? Maybe it tastes better if prepared by the light of the moon. We got back to sleep and at 6:15 we were awakened again by the roar of the truck that was to take us and our belongings to Playas. It was a stake truck that made the run from time to time to carry produce and products to the main road. The man with whom we had arranged to use the truck had told us he would send someone over when it was almost ready to go. He hadn’t. We jumped out of our beds and had to scramble and move to split up our belongings. We threw the dirty laundry into suitcases, dismantled and folded the cots, and threw the whole mess into the truck by 7:00. We got down to Playas just in time by 8:15, but only after three pigs were loaded on the bus at a stop on the way down. We unloaded our belongings and waited, along with too many others, for the mixto that was to arrive at 8:30. At about 8:45 it came along, loaded with pigs, firewood, people, and cargo. There was absolutely no place for our belongings so we opted to wait for the school bus-like Cooperative transport from Macará, hoping (in my case) that it would be devoid of signing school girls.
The bus finally arrived about 10:30 and it, too, was packed; but we found room for our things on top, and finally, we were on our way. Adios to Cangonamá! We went about one mile and the bus dropped its transmission…
Two hours later another mixto came by loaded with oil drums, but we found enough room for our belongings among them and finally got into Catacocha at about 1:00 in the afternoon. We waited until about 2:30 and another Cooperative bus came along that was full inside and loaded on top. We managed to get our stuff on top and I squeezed myself inside and sat on a wooden box placed between two seats. I rode that way for two hours until the bus was stopped and we waited for two Caterpillar bulldozers to cut out a path on the side of the mountain so the bus could proceed. This was the construction going on as part of the building of the Pan-American Highway. We waited in the rain inside that hot, smelly bus for about an hour and finally reached La Toma (also known as Catamayo) by 6:30, about three hours behind schedule. There, we were informed that a bus had gone off the road somewhere south of town and that we would have to wait until an ambulance went by so it would have room on the highway. We decided to go into a restaurant to order some dinner.
Just as our dinner was being served, about twenty minutes later, the ambulance came through and we were told we had to leave immediately. We left our dinners sitting on the table and were on our way. Within fifteen minutes we hit the fog in the mountain between La Toma and Loja. We proceeded the rest of the way on this under-construction, winding, mountain road at about ten to fifteen miles per hour. After thirteen and a half hours of travel, we finally reached Loja at 8:30 P.M. The town had never looked so good. Cangonamá was behind me, La Toma lay ahead and in between was a very much anticipated Christmas break in Quito.
Jerry Redfield (Ecuador 1963-65), a small-town Wisconsin boy with big ambitions, attributes his interest in politics to his high school teacher of History and Civics, Bob Thomas. He received his B.A. in Political Science with an emphasis on Latin American Studies in 1963, and his M.A. in Public Administration in 1967 from the University of Wisconsin.
After his undergraduate years, he spent two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador doing school construction and community development. Jerry spent his early years in corporate America, for which he was (admittedly) ill-prepared, in the insurance and communications industries. He found his niche in the Organization Development field.
The principles he learned in Community Development and his additional training transferred easily to the techniques he employed in Management and Team Development with the Harris Bank (now BMO) in Chicago. In the mid-1980’s he took his skills in O. D. and Change Management to assist individuals and corporations in managing the transitions required by the plethora of mergers, acquisitions, and downsizings occurring then and into the next decades. He served as a manager and consultant in the offices of Drake Beam Morin and other human resources consulting firms in the Chicago area.
He retired in 2004. Jerry is happily married and lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida. He enjoys reading, amateur theater, his new granddaughter, and international travel with his wife, Katie.