laptop on the porch in riochico ecuador
Life, travel

Reflection, Sickness and A New Morning Commute

Weekday

I am now, for the first time, in a place where almost nobody speaks English. I’m alone in Ecuador, trying to figure out what the hell is going on and where to get food and clean water.

Monday through Friday I wake up at 6:30 am start my 5 mile walk along the deserted beach to Montañita where I take Spanish classes. The town of Manglaralto has a rocky point that sticks out from the coast, so when the tide is high the beach is gone. Those days I climb the rocky steps and pass through the small town to get to back to the beach to the other side. When the tide is low I walk the whole way on the beach, nodding occasionally to a pickup truck full of fishermen speeding along the hardened beach sand.

As I near Montañita I walk through the wreckage of an old concrete pier. Giant chunks of concrete and metal have been abandoned to the ocean. At low tide, I’m careful to note the location of the erosion-sharpened pieces of rebar that stick up from the sand. At high tide they will lurk just below the surface of the water, ready to stab unsuspecting beachgoers.

It feels good to be in school again, to interact with people. I’ve been working remotely or for very small companies for a few years, and while I met some great people doing so, I’ve realized I miss the camaraderie of working with a team in-person. Being an introvert, I’ve come to realize I need to build that interaction into my life.

In Spanish class we talk about our lives and ask each other questions. I really enjoy it. I think I could live abroad, teach English, learn Spanish and write, surf, meet people, make art. I’m starting to feel that pull. That longing for creativity. I need to move, make art, written, visual, whatever. I simply can’t tolerate working at home for 40-60 hours a week on the computer. It’s destroying my body and making me lonely.

On our coffee break I sip weak coffee on the roof. I see designs in the cracks at the bottom of the coffee cup, and think about the colors and shapes I’d put on a canvas and that short story I never finished.

During our lunch break I grab my surfboard and run down to the beach. At mid-tide the surf is decent. My board was shaped by a local, it’s a 6′ fish with balsa edges and it’s pretty much perfect for me. I lucked out. After about an hour I’ll paddle back in and eat a big bowl of ceviche at the yellow carts lining the streets and beaches of Montañita before running back up the hill to catch my second class session.

As soon as school’s done, I make the trek back down the beach, board under my arm and walk back to the house on the hill in Riochico so I can throw some food on the stove and start my work day (or work night). I write code and listen to podcasts until I can’t stay awake any longer and then I crawl into bed pass out.

Saturday

I had big plans to surf today, the swell is picking up a bit and the tides are perfect for a good morning session. But I’m violently ill and delirious. I can’t eat more than a bite of bread every few hours and I’m almost out of drinkable water. Anita and Joaquin are gone for the weekend and my phone stopped working a week ago. I’ll have to make my 12 ounces of clean water last til tomorrow, hopefully by then the nausea will have let up enough for my to make the walk down the muddy mountainside to the mini-mart so I can buy a bag of clean water.

I’m laying on the bed outside, watching a documentary on The Grateful Dead. I’ve never been particularly moved by them, but right now the music and imagery in the documentary strikes me in a way it wouldn’t have before and I’m realizing I need to create and it can be weird and not perfect. I just need to try and commit to trying until I drop dead because we get one chance and I’ve tried to play the game and do things the smart way, the safe way, and it doesn’t feel right. It’s time to accept that my life is mine and I am the way I am. The wheels in my head are in motion, I need to make a change.

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beach in ecuador
Life, travel

Tales From Ecuador: 2 Babies On a Motorbike

Things are done a little differently here in coastal Ecuador. It’s been raining the past few days, and the streets are wet and muddy. I was waiting for the bus and a man on a motorbike pulled up, behind him, a little girl who couldn’t have been more than 4 years old sat on the bike. She was holding on to his sides with her tiny little hands. The man was wearing a helmet, the child was not. She was wearing a small pink backpack, totally unfazed by the experience.

They stopped in front of me momentarily. The girl looked at me with vague interest, probably wondering who the strange looking person with the white face and large beard was. Then a woman walked up carrying an even smaller child, a boy, and placed him on the seat behind the girl. The woman put the boy’s backpack on him, and the boy’s hands on the little girl’s backpack so he could hold on with whatever force a 3 year old boy could muster. I looked at his hands on the girl’s backpack, and the girl’s hands on the man’s jacket. They weren’t even straining. If they held a glass of milk like that it’d fall and shatter on the ground. This was all that would keep them on the motorbike, as the man drove off down the busy, rainy road to take them to school.

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night sky hills
Life, travel

Having a Panic Attack Alone in Rural Ecuador

Despite my exhaustion after 24 hours of flights, cabs and buses, every little sound wakes me up. Rustling in the brush outside, creaks inside. I hear pigs squealing 100m away. I saw a man beating them with a stick today while feeding them. They were all squealing in what sounded like a terrifying pig orgy.

Suddenly I can feel the distance between me and anyone I know. The 3,000 miles is a physical force weighing me down. I try to calm myself down by focusing on breathing, but my chest is tight, like when I was 10 and I had asthma attacks, and no matter how hard I tried I could not get enough oxygen. I think of the 2 cigarettes I smoked the other day when I was stressed, and how a friend recently died of cancer in her 30s. I’m certain I’m going to have a medical emergency alone on this hillside in Ecuador. A three hour bus ride from a city. 3 hours past cinder block shacks with exposed rebar, half of all the buildings unfinished. Past gray, depressing beaches, empty, devoid of the lush color and beauty of the Maui Beaches I once called home. Why were they so gray? The water and sand and sky. The relentlessness of the gray made it feel permanent.

I breathe in and imagine myself floating in the water at Paia Bay, where the deep blue ocean meets the orange-yellow sand, black volcanic rocks and lush greenery, all beneath the blue sky interrupted by occasional wisps of white cloud. It used to be my lunch break every day, and its cartoonish beauty spoiled me. I float and wait for a good wave to bodysurf onto the beach. Then I’ll walk up to my old pickup parked beneath the 40-foot palms, grab a shirt from the truck-bed and walk to Paia, past the vibrant storefronts, full of friends & neighbors and tourists.

Back in Ecuador, roosters crow in the distance. And for the first time in my life I’m glad to hear the sound. It reminds me of my old house in Makawao, on a Hawaiian hillside goat-pasture. I close my eyes and for an instant I’m back in the lofted bed, trying to sleep while my neighbor’s roosters try their best to keep me awake. They used to drive me crazy. But now as I struggle for breath in an unfamiliar country, surrounded by mosquito netting, more alone than I’ve ever been before, the crow of the roosters is reassuring. Maybe these places aren’t so different after all. Roosters still crow. Roosters still crow. I’ll be alright.

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active art, Life

Building a Rock Climbing Wall on Maui

When I moved to Maui three years ago I didn’t think there was any rock climbing on the island. The volcanic rock I encountered was either black, sharp and brittle, or red, crumbly and sandy. And there were definitely no climbing gyms to be found.

Of course, as someone who grew up in the midwest, what the hell did I know about rock formations? It turns out there is at least one crag with some pretty good routes, more to be developed, and some decent bouldering as well. But before I would find those, I came across a makeshift bouldering gym in a warehouse, built and frequented by a diverse group of fun, welcoming, generous people.

maui's only climbing gym (RIP)

Maui’s bouldering gym. Which is sadly, no longer standing.

I was beyond excited to find this spot. I had tried bouldering a few times in Chicago, but had to stop when moving to Maui. So as soon as I started again I was all in. Instantly I was like a kid again, climbing trees, grabbing holds, shifting my balance and body in weird ways, jumping, falling, rolling.

I love the physical dexterity, visual-spatial reasoning, the creativity involved in the sport. And the collaborative atmosphere is great. No matter your fitness or skill level, everyone at the “gym” gets excited for you when you finally finished a route you’ve been working on. It reminds me a lot of skateboarding. You’re working on a problem (or trick) as an individual, wrestling with the strategy and execution on your own, failing repeatedly until finally you make it. It’s immensely satisfying. And everyone knows that feeling of finally sending a route, so when you finally make it they’re as excited as you are. And when you see someone finally finish a project they’re working on you feel it too.

One of the first things that struck me when beginning to climb was just how weak my grip strength was. For most of us, long before any other part of you is tired, your fingers and hands give out. You simply can’t squeeze and grab on to the holds you need to finish a route.

I immediately wanted to train my grip strength, partially so I can climb harder routes, but mainly, just so I can climb longer. Frankly, I want to climb every day, and do it for as long as possible. So in service of that goal, I decided to build an adjustable bouldering wall in our carport.

I decided to use two sheets of plywood, set vertically against the wall, with about a 12 inch gap between them. Most of the time they stand up flat against the wall, secured to some eye rings. Then to make it a little harder, they can be unscrewed and then lay against a cross-beam, creating about a 20 degree overhang.

climbing holds, rough plans and the two panels against the wall

The first set of climbing holds (Metolious), Rough dimensions for the structure, and the two panels in place against the wall.

 

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One Panel lowered, with crash pads

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Both bouldering panels lowered to 20 degrees

I can lower one or both of the panels if I like, and there are some holds screwed into the cross-beam that they rest on, so there are plenty of little routes I can do. None are too long, but it’s great for keeping the hands active between climbing sessions at the gym or outside. And when the panels are flat against the wall it takes up almost no room.

The whole project cost about $300. About $150 for lumber and some fasteners (Maui prices…), and another $150 for two sets of holds and T-nuts. Which is a little pricy, but not too bad when you compare it to what you’d pay for a couple months of a gym membership or yoga classes or a single surfboard.

One of the great thing about bouldering is that once you have something to climb you don’t need much equipment. I got some crash pads, but you could easily use an old mattress for padding. And you don’t need ropes or a harness. As some people on Maui have taught me, you don’t even need shoes, though most people prefer them. For someone who sweats as much as I do, chalk is a must, though.

 

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doing good better by william macaskill
Life

Effective Altruism and The 100x Multiplier

I’m reading William MacAskill’s “Doing Good Better,” and it’s motivated me to automate monthly donations to the most effective charities I can. In the past I’d set up automated donations, but when moving to Maui, moving costs, job changes, and higher costs of living required me to suspend them. For me, MacAskill’s book about Effective Altruism has served as the reminder we all occasionally need, and my hope is that this post will serve as the reminder for others.

MacAskill writes of “The 100x Multiplier”, which is the idea that as citizens of the most economically developed societies, our resources can do 100 times more good for the poorest on earth than they can do for ourselves. In other words, the amount of benefit the poorest in the world would derive from $1 is about the same I would derive from $100. This is a very powerful idea, especially considering how insanely easy it is to donate to some of the most effective charities in the world, regularly and automatically.

GiveWell.org does thorough research on which charities are most effective in doing good. I just went to this link: https://secure.givewell.org/donate-online, and set up a recurring monthly donation to Deworm The World and GiveDirectly. I timed it on my phone, it took 1:36.29 (1 min 36 sec). That includes me looking around for my wallet and my autofill settings putting in the wrong address.

The amount we each can give varies, but almost anyone reading this blog can afford to set up something that will automatically come from their bank account, and they likely won’t even notice. It’s easy to get caught up in our day to day lives and forget about the extraordinary position we’re in the help those who were born into much poorer economic circumstances. This is why it’s so important to automate these types of donation decisions, to make giving the default, and when our economic circumstances change, we can dial back donations if need be. But we should always keep in mind that what seems like a little for us, can make a huge difference for others.

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