Friday, November 28, 2014

"My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you"

Clouds parting over Chirimoyal.
Resilience. Flexibility. Courage. Faith.

Where do the engines of the human soul find their fuel? What is the strange sustenance that will-power and spirit provide? Out of what material does perseverance manifest?

A beautiful, bug-free view.
The fruit of labour on Chirimoyal.
I drew my cup from my family. I aspired toward the dignity of endurance that Hannah Arendt wrote of in "On Revolution." Life is difficult: problems arise like waves on the seashore. Living, one must come to understand, is not in avoiding or worrying about the inevitable problems -- rather, to confront the problem of living is the basis of all human labour. The exertion of labour is the first act of happiness; the rejuvenation that would follow is the second act. Happiness itself is like the theatre crowd: when the show ends it begins to leave. This is the simple nature of happiness that is yet so difficult to enjoy, and impossible to hold in one's hand.

Necessary to build for our necessities.

To be happy I chose to build again: I chose the process, not the product. The great need I felt then to see my work through to its construction was a desire to see a completed process, not a desire to construct a certain structure. This much I had learned from the first attempt.

I might choose to build again, though I could not choose to return to our earlier situation. The tide swelled: our budget dwindled, our visa period had a definite, approaching end and our family beckoned us to a "traditional" life with worried words. Our project had roots in a deeper, older tradition.

The practical points of rebuilding desperately needed our focus.

The next several posts will break these points down and cover them one-by-one. Expect short articles on:
  • designing
  • siting
  • clearing and preparing a site
  • levelling a site
  • transferring a design to the ground
  • digging and filling the foundation trenches
  • stacking a stone stem-wall
  • pouring an adobe floor
  • finding and preparing the right cob mix
  • machine mixing large quantities of cob
  • the need to adapt a cob work-process to specific climates
  • trimming
  • collecting materials ahead of time
  • what to do when you can't achieve your goal: flexibility & improvisation in natural building
  • putting up a roof
  • the unforeseen uses of a structure
  • natural building and community
  • If you build it, they will come...
  • ...and more...
    The last sun rays
    stretch and scatter
    the valley night.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

It's Not Rock Science

We got our rocks and we got them for free. In the end, you get what you pay for.

Although what we received did not split easily under hammer and chisel, and certainly weighed the weight of what we thought we had bargained for, it was the rain that revealed the true nature of our rocks.
Some of these things
are not like the others.

The Ecuadorian Andes are not glacial mountains, though some do contain glaciers. They are not carved of solid rock; they are not of fixed height. The Andes are the geological result of the massive tectonic plates under the earth and ocean coming together and overlapping, a process called orogenesis (Greek: oros [moutain] + genesis [creation, origin]). Every year as the plates continue their movement, the plate on top is pushed slightly higher by the plate on bottom wedging itself further underneath. The top plate folds and deforms, giving birth to mountains. Growth of this sort is a slow thing, but I have heard it is the slow moving things about which one should worry, if one worries at all.

What is now the top, middle and lower strata of the Andes was once, so long ago the entire universe was noticeably younger, the bottom of a great sea. That sea contained mostly sand, a good deal of organic matter and a scattering of relatively small rocks. All of this has been mixed together and very slowly formed into mountains. As Oscar put it, ‘The Andes are made of cement.’ It is a weak cement and while great compressive force has wrought physically tough material capable of withstanding the blows of man and machine, water undoes its bonds in very little time.

Of course, there were signs that our rocks were not rocks. They were very brittle and broke under the chisel in odd ways. I guessed that something was amiss and left the stem-wall un-mortared and incomplete for a week while awaiting a response from an Irish stonemason I had met in Cloughjordan. His response came: he could not tell the rock from only a photo. By then it no longer mattered: the rain had revealed the truth.

The Truth within the rocks.
When the Universal Solvent
has dissolved the 'rock'
to a watery sludge, not even
a single pebble remains
The organic matter of our rocks had turned into a thick sludge not unlike clay slip, but much more watery. This sludge leaked down through the rocks and into the gravel drainage ditch where it covered the top course of gravel and became stuck. The rocks themselves looked like poor disintegrated piles of cement, with a melting exterior over a dry, hard and solid mass. The sight was miserable and the feeling terrible. In the end we had paid dearly for our free material with a month and a half of negotiation and hard labor down the drain — and the drain clogged!

In the Chota Valley we have a saying:
He who laughs last,
is surely Ingeniero Zapata.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Nobody gets in to see the Wizard. Not nobody.

Electric light on Chirimoyal.
Four A.M. in the valley of Chota. Darkness envelops all things, casting the mountains in dim outline against the sky. The water boils noisily on the stove, the only sound left. I pull on a warm camel-hair hat, pour a cup of coffee for myself and sit, staring out at the shadowy forms beyond the black mesh surrounding the kitchen, red nescafé cup steaming in my hands. The foundation trenches have been dug and the gravel infill filled in. It is time for the stone stem wall. One day has passed since the chief engineer of the province ordered Ingeniero Zapata to provide me with rocks from the excavation site.

The gate to the encampamiento appears deserted. I walk up to the hatch and bang on the steel door. I wait half a minute and bang again. To my left is a small guardpost jutting out from the monolithic concrete wall surrounding the encampamiento. The hatch in the guard-post slides open.
"How can I help you?" I turn left to face the unseen questioner.
"I would like to speak with Ingeniero Zapata."
"He's not here."
On the other side of the hatch a security guard in a bullet-proof vest with company insignia sewn over the right breast looks back at me. The time is not yet five A.M.: truth is still a relative thing.
"During a meeting with the chief engineer of the province two days ago at the MTOP headquarters in Ibarra, I was told me to meet Zapata here between four thirty and five in the morning."
"Let me go see."
The hatch closes. My hands are warm in the pockets of my vest. A hatch opens, the one beside the vehicular gate.
"Yes?" says a worker with a white helmet.
"I would like to speak with Ingeniero Zapata."
"About what?"
"About receiving a few dumptrucks of rocks from the road works near the old panamericana."
"What's your name?"
"Wait here. Ingeniero Zapata is preparing the crew so he may be a while."
"I'll be here," I say, pointing to the pick-up.
The hatch slides shut.
From within the pickup cabin I watch the white cinder block change from black to grey.
"Hey!" The hatch beside the vehicular gate is open. The dawn quiet amplifies the sound of the pickup's doors opening with a heavy click and closing with a satisfying thunk. For the third time this morning I have a stranger's face.
"Well?" I ask.
"The Ingeniero says he can't spare any material."
"Look, do you know who Sofía Franco is?"
"The Ingeniera?"
"Yes, the same, head of the MTOP. I had a meeting with her two days ago and she had the chief engineer of the province call Zapata and tell him to give me the material I'm asking for. Please remind him of that."
"OK, I'll try telling him that..."
"Wait – could you just ask him to come over here and speak to me himself?"
"Wait here."
The vehicular gate-side hatch slides shut. The hatch in the guardhouse slides open.
"Who are you?" asks a security guard.
"I'm here to see Ingeniero Zapata," I say, turning to the left. "His boss called his cell-phone two days ago and ordered him to give me two dumptrucks of rocks from the road excavation by the old panamericana. My name is Bartels; I spoke directly with Zapata right here, two days ago at about this time."
"What do you need the rocks for?"
"For the foundations of a house I'm building."
"Where are you building?"
"On the old pana, just past where they are excavating."
"Ah, that's real close-by."
"Yes. Could bring Zapata for a moment? Just tell him who I am, he should know."
The hatch slides shut.
I kick at the lose gravel in front of the gate. The sun is beginning to rise. Metal rattles and the gate slides open. A white ministry pickup rolls out of the driveway, stopping before my pickup. A security guard walks over. How many security guards does the encampamiento employ? "Please move your pickup out of the way," he says, and points to a strip of bare earth between the encampamiento wall and the highway. I move my pickup and watch the gate close behind the ministry pickup. From within their pickup, one of the ministry men looks at me from under a yellow hat, and then their pickup turns onto the highway and is gone.
Dawn is a strange moment. The sun rises quickly while time passes slowly.
"Sir!" The gate-side hatch is open. I get out of the pickup and walk over.
"What's up?"
"I told Zapata what you said." Ah! At last, an acquaintance! I nod.
"He doesn't know who you are or what you're talking about."
"And I suppose he didn't receive a call from his boss the other day either?"
"That's right."
"Is there more than one Ingeniero Zapata here?"
"No sir, just the chief engineer."
"Can I speak with him please? If he's busy maybe you could let me in and I could see him in his office."
"I'm sorry, but Zapata has already left for the day."
"Well where can I find him?"
"I can't say – he drives around to all of the works in the region throughout the day. Your best chance is in the morning--"
"--between four and five-thirty?" I interject.
"That's right."
"Thank you," I say.
The hatch slides shut.

Zapata . . . !

A house must needs construction to be built. Just so hands must need work to construct. My hands, driving me all about in search of materials, were long in not doing construction work. For a second time in two days I visit the MTOP. This time however Ana, the secretary, lets me in to Sofía's office after a short wait. We exchange greetings.
"Did you receive the materials you needed?"
"No – Zapata said he neither remembered me, nor the phone call the chief engineer made to him – but I don't know, they didn't let me speak directly to Zapata."
"Hmm... In that case, you'll have to submit a written petition for materials, signed by the director of the NGO you are working with, yourself, and me."
"You'd sign something like that?"
"Sure, it's not a problem if we have the signature of the director of you organisation. We can't give materials and services to private individuals, but to organisations, yes."
"Alright! – thank you so much! I'll go prepare a petition for materials with the organisation. Will you be in this afternoon?"
"I'm here from three to four-thirty."
"OK – I'll come by between those hours for your signature."
"See you later."
"See you later, Sofía – and thanks!"

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Z for Zapata

Free material. The balm of gilead for poor natural builders. Clay from a road cut; stones from an excavation site sand from the ground or river. We received several dump trucks full of free materials from the Ministry of Transportation & Public Works, or M.T.O.P. Will we ever ask them for stones again? Quoth the raven, "Nevermore!"

I awoke to the sound of my alarm ringing at 4:30 AM. The crickets had gone to sleep several hours ago and the birds had not yet woken. There was one person out there, somewhere, awake, and I had an appointment with him: Ingeniero Zapata.

My blue Mazda pickup rolled off the highway onto the driveway to the M.T.O.P. encampment. Gravel crunched and popped under the tires as I came to a stop before a large corrugated steel gate. I got out of the pickup and walked up to the gate. "Buenos Días," I shouted. A hatch to the left of the gate slid open and I heard a voice from somewhere int he darkness. "What do you want?" I walked closer to the hatch and peered inside, trying to get a glimpse of the courtyard. I could see a small number of workers crossing beneath a large mango tree, while a paved drive led to a large hangar, probably a garage. When the workers began for the day, which they soon would, they would roll out in 16 dump trucks, four Komatsu hydraulic shovels and a number of ministry pickups with the M.T.O.P. logo painted on the sides. They would climb to their positions in the mountains and resume excavation to make room for the expansion of the panamericana to four lanes. They reminded me of the ants taking apart the cement fixings of our house, working constantly and leaving rubble piles at their work sites. Unlike the men, the ants also did us the favor of removing dead cockroaches and food scraps. I turned my attention back to the voice beyond the hatch. "I'm here to see Zapata. I heard he'd be here at this time," I said.
"Who are you?" the voice responded.
"My name is Bartels," and I added "I live here," in case they were feeling neighbourly.
"What do you want?"
"I would like to speak with the chief engineer about receiving some of the rocks excavated during your works. Is that engineer Zapata?"
The hatch slid shut. I waited, hugging my down vest tight around my torso. A few seconds later the hatch opened.
"What do you want?"
"Are you engineer Zapata?"
"You're the chief engineer?"
He had a yellow helmet. Everyone else had a white helmet.
"I would like to know if it would be possible to receive from the excavation works a dump-truck or two full of rocks, for use in the foundations of a house I'm building."
Zapata looked at me through the hatch. In the dim light I couldn't make out his features.
"I can't give you any material without permission from the director of the M.T.O.P."
"Where is the M.T.O.P. director located?"
"At the M.T.O.P. headquarters, in Ibarra."
I had Zapata draw me a map, then I thanked him and returned home. The birds had woken up for their morning concert and I wouldn't be returning to sleep any time soon. I put on a kettle for coffee and heated up a breakfast of tomato de árbol and banana in oatmeal with granola.

The M.T.O.P. is a gated complex on the main road through Ibarra, leading south to Quito in one direction and north to Tulcán and the border with Colombia in the other direction. I drove past the ministry complex twice before realising it was there. The security guard at the gate, after learning I was there to see the director, waved us through with the colloquial "Siga." The first building past the gates on the left-hand side is a tiny guard house with no door. All of the buildings in the complex surround the parking lot, which extends back until it bends and is out of sight. The office next to the guard house was plastered with cement, per the norm here, and a large triangular wedge had fallen away, exposing the the rough, light-grey concrete wall. Following the office, a large bathroom facility showed no outer damage. Further down the left-hand side of the parking lot a large hangar, corrugated roof held aloft by several steel pylons, housed two large dump-trucks and a small backhoe. The hangar juts into the parking lot, blocking further view. To the right-hand side past the entrance to the complex is an empty building. What I imagined would one day be window frames were no more than several holes in the far wall, clearly visible through the collapsed near well. Naked rebar stuck out from concrete columns and floors like grass growing on an undisturbed field. The next building into the complex on this side caught my attention. A stone and mortar wall protected the outside of an outdoor staircase. I parked and the security guard wandered over to the pickup. He asked for a more detailed version of my business there. I explained the discussion with Zapata and he gestured to the rear of the parking lot. "You want the building in back," he said, returning to his post. I went as far back as the hangar before realising that all of the buildings beyond looked the same to me. I stopped and asked a a man working on one of the dump trucks where the director's office was. "You mean the directora, engineer Sofía Franco?" He pointed to the metal-framed glass doorway next to the staircase with the stone wall, back towards the entrance. "You want that building up front."

Inside the building where the directora presumedly resided during working hours a young woman greeted me. "Are you engineer Sofía Franco?" I asked. "No," she replied, "I'm her secretary." As I was introducing myself another man entered and began speaking with her. She asked me to take a seat in the chairs in an alcove by the entrance. A man and a woman had already sat in two of the chairs and had to stand up to let me by as I stepped up into the alcove. When I sat my knees were almost touching the man's knees. All of us waited silently in the uncomfortably close intimacy of that alcove. After five minutes the secretary approached and motioned me to her desk. I explained the situation with Zapata.
"What do you need the material for?"
"I need about two dump trucks of stones and three of clay-filled earth, if that would be possible, for a natural house in Chota."
"In Chota? Ah, that part of the road is under the jurisdiction of the provincial M.T.O.P. of Carchi, in Tulcán."
Tulcán is two hours from Chota by car.
"Ingeniero Zapata told me to come here for the directora's permission."
"Ah, maybe, but the excavation there is part of the road works done by the Carchi M.T.O.P."
"Look, I live on the old panamericana, just past the Ambuquí toll both. It's still the province of Imbabura there."
"You have to go to Tulcán; we can't give you permission here."
"The land where I'm building is 5 km further from Ibarra than the excavation works. To build there I had to get permission from the government administration here in Ibarra, not from Carchi... and Ingeniero Zapata was clear that he receives orders from you all, at this ministry in Ibarra."
She held my gaze.
"The ministry can't just give away materials to any individual who comes and asks for them."
"I'm not asking for much, and I'll pay the full cost of transport, including gasoline."
"What you're asking for is not possible."
"Please, could I speak with the directora?"
She glanced away and then back at me.
"Are you part of an organisation or something?"
"Yes," I replied immediately, "I'm a volunteer with an NGO here in Ibarra. This house project is related to my work with them. We work with indigenous communities, with the blind community of Imbabura, and with... uh... what's the word for people who are in jail?"
"Uh, so maybe ex-prisoner capacitation."
The conversation had moved outside my prepared speech and my Spanish vocabulary was barely up to the task.
"One moment."
The secretary entered the room she had glanced at earlier. Above the door was a placard with the words "Ingeniera Sofía Franco." After a moment she reappeared.
"Go ahead, the directora will see you now."

The directora, from behind her desk, was chatting with a man slouching on the couch. I introduced myself. The directress pulled her glossy lips into a big smile. "I'm Sofía," she said. "Your project is an interesting. What can we do to help?" I began to explain. When I arrived at Zapata, the man on the couch pulled out his cellphone and dialled a number. I shifted my explanation to the work done by the NGO. Sofía was nodding along with what I was saying.
"Zapata," the man on the couch spoke into his cellphone, "did two gringos come by this morning?"
Sofía and I turned to regard him.
"What did he ask for?"
There was a pause as Zapata responded on the other end of the line.
"That's all? That's not a problem, give it to him."
Sofía smiled at me.
"You can go pick up the material now," this time the man spoke to me as he pocketed the cellphone.
"Thank you very much," I said, "though Zapata said I need the director's," I looked at Sofía, "or the directora's permission."
They both laughed.
"This is the head engineer of the province," Sofía explained while gesturing to the man. "He's like the boss of Zapata."
I nodded.
"All the same, could I have your number just in case he forgets this call?"
They both laughed, the head engineer especially loudly. I wondered if Zapata had a reputation, or I were busy making one for myself. Sofía consented and we exchanged numbers. I thanked them both, we all shook hands and I left the office. On the way out I resumed a conversation I had been having with the secretary about obtaining straw bales. After promising to contact a neighbour of hers she had seen baling barley straw she suggested we exchange numbers. Another round of thanks and handshakes and I left the ministry.

Back in the pickup I thought about how Sofía said she was 28, and the secretary looked in her thirties, and how Sofía was made up with lipstick and eyeliner. I remembered what Pablo had said. 'Jamie, Correa has removed all the heads of public ministries and agencies from office. And he replaced them with attractive young women straight out of university. And now? Good luck getting anything done if it involves the government."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Aggregating Mistakes

We knew we would make many mistakes when we began this project. Today's mistakes are the seeds for tomorrow's successes, and we prefer to leave this project having made most of our grand mistakes in natural building. For your edification and amusement, here are some of the errors of our ways.

1. We'll just strap the baby on our backs and work together.
This one doesn't mind.
The baby, as it turns out, has plenty to say about that. Half of us is occupied with childcare in easy times, and on other days we abandon work on the natural house to cook, clean and nap. Parenting is a much harder job than natural building.

2. That looks fine, let's just go ahead and build.
We try to accommodate many different priorities here, sometimes leading us in a tricky balancing act with no right choice and many wrong ones. After digging and filling the foundation trench for the first attempt we realised we hadn't put enough thought into the design. The result was several awkwardly large rooms that had no flow. This and several other "mistakes" filled us with such regret we decided to scrap the first attempt, relocate the site, and begin again from scratch.

3. We'll organise the site later.
When the schedule is placed before all else, quality of work is sure to suffer. Organisational lapses accumulate and boulders end up on the wrong side of a foundation trench. Piles of excavated earth block the work area, until they are haphazardly relocated to make way for a wheelbarrow. On an un-level site, just carting around 80kg of rock is a challenge. Alternatively, a site with even a minimum of forethought put into organisation is delightfully satisfying to work on and, personally, much more aesthetically pleasing. Sand, stones and earth handy where you need them; always a clear and level path for the wheelbarrow; safe for children to work and play in and around. They must mind the scorpions, of course.

4. Never trust Zapata.
More on this later.

5. Trust in ourselves and our vision.
(alternatively, Just Say No!)
There will always be someone who thinks they know better than us how to accomplish our dreams. Sometimes they do know better than us about the practicalities of getting there. But if we relinquish decision making to this person, at that point our dream ceases to be ours and becomes theirs -- and that is in the lucky case. Much more likely is that our dream becomes their side-project or resumé-padder, and we are pointed in the "right" direction and left on our own at the first difficulty. We cannot trust our intuition once we begin down this road because the project no longer comes from us, is no longer tied to our standards, nor to our aesthetic and technical vision. No matter how much more than us someone knows about a specific subject or way of doing something, we will stand firm in our decisions. Working to educate yourself without a teacher can be stressful and frightening. The final form of your work remains cloudy and the path to achievement is unclear. This project has been full of these experiences: learning to cement, learning to plaster, learning to build a dry toilet and grey water system, learning to build a stone foundation. I can say that ultimately, walking our own path is much more satisfying and, for me, has been much more edifying than following someone else. Even if it means restarting from scratch a couple of times.
Our intuitive interpretation of dry-stacked stone foundation. Taken before we applied mortar.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Orion's Belt

The longer you stare at the night sky the more stars are revealed. The patina of thinly spotted blackness dissolves and coloured spots of light twinkle into vision. The empty space between those spots is filled with a glowing cob-web of stellar illumination. Galaxies and constellations take shape

Under the stars, I think of our project in Ecuador. We had an idea that we would arrive in the country, proceed to work with Ainoa on our backs, helped by a small force of volunteers to finish the cob house and build a permaculture garden where we would grow most of our vegetables.

The longer we stay and work the more complexities and problems are revealed. The naïve vision dissolves and administrative realities make us spend time where we had not planned to spend it.

The water company's sense of humour.
Recently we lost water and spent a total of 14 days without drinkable water, and without any water at all for 12 of those days. I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence. The only thing to note this time was the extraordinary long duration of the stoppage.

Despite, although "in spite of" is more true to our feelings, all the misadventures and time wasted waiting in doctor's offices, lines at the utility company and Associasion Nacional de Transito, we have managed to complete more than nothing.

First, we have learned a lot. About ourselves, mostly. Call it knowledge, or wisdom -- the skein of accumulated experience that pulls judgement in one direction or another.

And then there's the house. It's not that we haven't worked on it, it's just that progress has been... well...

The first attempt at the house was rushed. We didn't level the site beforehand. The gravel trench was too shallow half around. We didn't tamp the bottom of the trench or the drainage gravel. The "rocks" we received for the stem-wall were actually aggregate full
Radiolarian is not rock.
of fossilised radiolarian, small mineral skeletons formed by oceanic protozoa eons ago, before the continental plates collided together and pushed up the Andean mountains; these "rocks" melted into a wet clay-like substance after the first big rain. We didn't use mortar between the rocks.

The second attempt, our current attempt, is much less rushed. We levelled the site roughly 2 meters around from the exterior of the walls. The gravel trench extends down a good 60cm under all parts of the exterior wall. We tamped the bottom of the trench and tamped again after each 15cm layer of drainage gravel. We built the stem wall with rocks we had ordered from a quarry. We are currently mortaring the rocks together to prevent the biting flies, cockroaches, mice, opossum and scorpions from sneaking in. The spiders we don't mind so much, especially since they tend to consume unwelcome insects. Even the brown-widows are guests on the outside-facing parts of the stem-wall.

Hello, Lycosidae friend.
Doing things properly takes a lot of time. The satisfaction of a job well-done comes at the price of an extended schedule and a lot of effort. We gladly pay this price, and then grimace as environmental variables double it.

Between the first and second attempts it rained and the radiolarian melted into the drainage gravel. We had to remove the radiolarian from the gravel trench, some of it with a 18-pound sledge-hammer, the wooden handle of which broke after three strikes and had to be replaced with a steel tube. The remaining gravel was covered with a layer of concrete-like organic matter that prevented drainage. We continued to have rain. The layer of radiolarian turned into a gooey glue which no amount of sifting would remove. So we shovelled the gravel out of the trench and spread it out on the ground to dry it in the sun and air. When it had dried we sifted it twice and carted it over to the new site by wheelbarrow.

Hard work.
We filled the gravel trench on the second site and tamped it. We began dry-stacking the rocks we had moved from large piles next to the first site. Some were so heavy we had to roll them the 15m into place. After dry-stacking, we began to mix cement and sand to make mortar. Mortar mixes require a good amount of water available, both for incorporation in the mix and for wetting and cleaning tools. Monthly water outages are common in the region, sometimes for up to five or six days per month. When we began to mix mortar we lost water on the third day, for four days. On the fifth day the water came back and we lost electricity in the afternoon. Of course, our mixer is electric. The next day electricity was restored. Two days later we lost water, for four days, and on the fifth day the water ran from the faucet dark grey, all day. So we came down to Quito for a week, from where I write now.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


The price of manual labor in Ecuador is $150 per week. The weekly food bill for us once stood at $80 for two adults and a toddler. I kept asking anyone who would listen how workers with large families accounted for this. When several EMAPA employees came to install the water meter on Pedregal I finally received an answer.

Ana Lucia took me along to the Mayorista the first week I was in Ibarra. We walked along amongst open rooms full of woven plastic sacs bulging with fruits and vegetables. Ana Lucia stopped now at the blood-red Tomates de Arbol, now at the tiny orange Naranjillas and now at the enormous light green Watermelons. At each stop she conducted business with a familiar humor and then asked me to show the vendor to which car to carry each 15 kilograms of fruit.
"Ana Lucia," I asked after the last watermelon had rocked the car and we glided through throngs of buyers, "Can anyone shop here?"
"Of course, why wouldn't they be able to?"
"It's a wholesale market and I don't know if it's permitted for people who don't own restaurants or––"
"Ah, no, only store owners are allowed to shop here."
"Food stores?"
"Hmm... Food stores, restaurants, anyone who needs a large quantity of fruits or vegetables."
"So I couldn't buy here?"
"No, I don't think so; No."
I looked out of the window and watched the exit barrier swing back in place. Just like that, the Mayorista was out of my mind.

Months later I stood next to a pickup, swatting at sand flies.
"It's the hour when they're most active," said one of the men with a yellow helmet and reflective vest.
"What? Oh, the flies, yes. You have to put on repellent in the afternoon." I was watching his compañero dig for the water main.
"Is the wall OK?" I gestured to the brick wall covered with patches of cement mortar.
"What happens is that if we put the meter in the wall we have to make a hole for it and the wall will fall over. But that doesn't matter, we'll put the meter on top and if you have more bricks you can build around it later."
"That's fine, I've got about 15 bricks more."
"You won't have a problem then, that's easily enough."
"I wasn't there when the technician came to verify the location of the main here, but I heard that he said a brick wall like this would be fine."
"No, you want something with a hole in the middle, so we can install the meter like that," and he pointed across the road at a small concrete-block wall with a water meter neatly cemented in the center.
"It doesn't matter though, we'll use cement to put the meter on top of the bricks and you can put the other bricks around it when you have time."
I nodded and watched the worker connect the main to half-inch plastic tubing.
"I have a question for all of you, something I haven't managed to figure out here in Ecuador. How is it that salaries for labourers are so low, but commodity and food prices so high?"
They all looked at me.
"Well, for example, what's the salary for a week of manual labor?"
"They don't charge by the week, usually you pay for a month at a time. But a week would be about $125."
"I paid $150 per week for three weeks, but I guess that's a little expensive?"
"$150... that could be the price."
"We pay about $80 a week for food at Gran-Aki. If you live with your parents and children, how do you cover the cost of living when most of your salary goes toward food? I don't understand this."
"You buy fruit and vegetables at the Mayorista."
"At the Mayorista... can you shop there if you're not a business?"
"Yes, anyone can shop there. What you buy at the supermarkets usually comes from there, and then the supermarket adds to the price for the store, the employees and taxes. The Mayorista is cheaper, and better quality."
"Cheaper? I don't know. We buy on Tuesdays at Gran-Aki and there's a 20% discount on produce."
"Look, how much is a lettuce there?"
"85 cents before discount, so––"
"25 cents at the Mayorista, and for better quality."
"And you're sure anyone can shop there?"
"Yes, it doesn't matter who the person is."
I was all questions and they were eager to educate me. A little too eager.
Today the water company had to send workers back to Pedregal to fix a leak between the main and the meter.

Last week we took our first shopping trip to the Mayorista. There's a section called the Minorista, where we buy most of our veggies but we also visit some of the larger wholesalers, buying mandarins and pineapples directly off of a truck. The Mayorista is the typical market experience: searching for the right quality of fruit, some haggling and finding our señora who this week threw in some extra veggies 'because it's you.'

Now, I feel horrible doing this because I know not all of you are happy with your available choices in local food, nor can all of you afford what you'd like in fruit. When we were living in Brussels most of the fruit we bought was from Morocco and my favourite, strawberries, were $5-6 for a small plastic box, so expensive for us that they were a twice-a-year treat.

... and yet I am compelled to continue, perhaps by the desire to document, perhaps by the desire to entice volunteers. Whatever be it, here is the total of our produce purchase from this Monday, at a price of $26.

Strawberries $1. Non-produce purchased at Gran-Aki.

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