Variations of Tiny Campers

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Hey, haven’t seen your inbox or spam folder in a while, nice to be back!
Are you safe? Are your hands washed? My reaction to the virus has been writing silly jokes about it by day, and thinking this is the Franz Ferdinand of WWIII by night. It’s day now, so everything’s good! I thought I could send something to read to distract you from impending doom!

Lots have happened since December. Here are a couple of highlights for you.

Clouds in the Andes

As soon as I hug my brother we start plotting our break-in. Ever since I left Ecuador it has been a dream of mine to go back unannounced, to ring the bell at my parent’s (my) home and say “it’s me!” And at 1 am of a cold Tuesday in early January I’m in a car with Aut and my brother, who just picked us up from the airport, ready to fulfill some form of this fantasy. Our plan needs enough urgency to wake our parents up but not enough drama to scare them too much. So my brother walks in and wakes them up, telling them he needs help with two stray dogs he just found on the road. They reluctantly get out of bed, my dad saying “why can’t you do humane acts in a normal schedule?!”

The plan is perfect. I see their faces transform from resigned anger into disbelief once we meet under the entry light. I jump and they curse and we hug. It’s 1:30 am and the screams of my parents’ disbelief echoes through the dark and empty streets into the valley below us.

It just takes an instant to feel like I’m back into my Ecuador routine, to accept the normalcy of seeing my brother, having lunch with my mom, talking to my dad at midnight. Highlights of the trip include the long conversations with my mom and sharing a stage with my dad, who did stand up for the first time. Before this we’ve also spent a month in Michigan with Aut’s family, and it’s easy to call other places home besides our tiny camper. Ecuador is also a tiny camper, a small and warm home that doesn’t have much but everything I need is within reach.

Besides the obvious joy of seeing my family I love going back to the Andes. In the highlands of Quito the clouds come down from time to time and cover the streets with a white mist that turns all lights into cotton balls and all sounds into echoes. We take a hike to a near peak, one of the active volcanoes that dominates the landscape around the city. When we reach the top we can’t see its mouth as it’s covered by clouds breaking into its ream as a slo-mo version of a coastal cliff in a storm. It’s a strange thing, being on top of the Andes: the clouds move faster than usual but they still simulate a measured flow, like a gentle river. Time stands still up there, just like in my parents’ home, and it doesn’t feel like I’ll ever come down of that mountain, say goodbye to my family and friends, get on a plane, or drive back to my other tiny camper.

Brazoria

We’re in Texas, and the biggest issue I have writing about this state is the fear of not knowing if I’m inadvertently messing with it. I’ve been thoroughly warned I shouldn’t do that. “Don’t mess with Texas” is such a weird, violent motto. Other states have messages like “Enjoy Missouri” or “Drink Wisconsinbly,” or “Drive quickly through Indiana.” All positive slogans. But here a tourism board got together and was like “let’s open with a threat.”

We’re volunteers at for Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, a relatively small corner of protected federal land an hour south of Houston. We’re here until May to help with their visitor center, student field trips, their outreach to the Latino community, and to help raise butterflies. In exchange they provide us an RV spot at their volunteer village with electricity and water hook-ups. We really loved the idea of learning about butterflies and the bird watching opportunities, but there’s also a building here in the village that has a bathroom and a shower. Now I don’t know if you have access to electricity and a flushable toilet, but if you don’t I highly recommend it.

When we arrive we meet a long-term volunteer called Stan. He’s a tall, long-limbed, 60 year-old man who appears a bit crass and direct, and who’s giving us instructions on what to do and how to do it for a full week before we even meet our official supervisor. Stan moves slowly, not because of his age but from what seems to be a certain form of resignation, as if his limbs would be dancing to a band called Government Bureaucracy. He wears a cap he removes every two minutes to scratch his head. He has wild hair, and big eyes under small rectangular glasses. He uses the entirety of his huge, well-worn hands to push them back into place.

At first he strikes us as menacing but it only takes us a few days to see that his towering presence is not really a contrast but a complement to his affability. His kindness is revealed to us as he shows us how to raise monarch butterflies. He checks for eggs under the leaves of the milkweed, picks up these white balls the size of a pin head, feeds caterpillars a fresh handful of leaves, picks up butterflies from their wings into their food. These delicate jobs would seem absurd in the giant hands of a once organic farmer, but he handles them delicately, whispering “don’t do this to me, baby!” whenever one of them tries too hard to escape his soft grip.

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