Greg introduced Jess to the Eden's Rose Foundation, a non-profit started by Greg a few years ago to promote gender empowerment, improve basic health, provide clean water, and support entrepreneurship to small communities throughout Ecuador and in the Himalayas. Naming his foundation after a close friend who had passed away in the states, Greg dove head first into creating a sustainable non-profit built on the principles of trust, honesty, and responsibility. Greg does not have a master's in non-profit management. He doesn't have a bachelors. Greg didn't finish high school, let alone go to college. But when Greg sees people in need, he pours every ounce of his soul into finding a way to help. While telling Jessica all about Eden's Rose in Ecuador, Jess brought up our plans to be traveling througout South America in the coming fall. "When you're all in Ecuador, come on down to Tosagua and check out our work!" Of all our plans, or lack there of, througout our trip thus far, this was one we held true on.
After spending Christmas and New Years in dirty Quito, we spent a week at the beach only an hour and a half from where Eden's Rose in Ecuador is based out of, a small city called Tosagua. We called Greg, told him we were making our way to Tosagua and asked if it was still possible to volunteer with Eden's Rose for a week or so. He told us he wasn't quite sure what we would be doing as volunteers but we'd find something. Good enough for us! We caught a bus from Canoa to Tosagua, arrived around ten in the evening to a town that doesn't see too many gringos. People thought we were lost, or waiting for a connecting bus but not actually meaning to be in Tosagua. The town sits next to a river that floods every rainy season creating a mix of contaminated drinking water to mud filled streets filled with breeding mosquitos transfering dengue fever and malaria to a community already full of its share of problems. The surrounding area is the chicken feed capital of Ecuador, meaning they grow primarily only corn to be pulverized and fed to chickens. Sometimes working for these huge factory farms is the only work a man can find to make a small amount of money to support his family. Unfortunately that work means 365 days a year. Oh, you're sick one day, no worries, you're fired! And the work is not pretty. The reason all the drinking water is contaminated is because these farms use heavy amounts of herbicides and pesticides mixed by men with no protection, often times in their homes, contaminating the cooking area as well leading to all sorts of health problems ranging from cancer, to birth defects, to reduced immune systems leading to more deaths from dengue and malaria. Not pretty.
So Greg found this town and this community and decided to act. A close friend of Greg a couple years back in the fetal stages of the foundation was from Colombia and happened to know how to make creative and beautiful macrame bracelets out of a wax string from Brazil. They set out to train some local women in a class on how to make macrame bracelets. Each woman who makes a bracelet gets paid for said piece. Once the women graduate from the macrame class, they're available to create their own small business of training other women and children or selling their jewelry as they see fit. The jewelry from the women associated with Eden's Rose gets shipped back to the United States where Eden's Rose volunteers (read here: summer and fall job? Check) travel from music festival to music festival and follow band tours to set up these merchant tents and sell the jewelry and other products associated with the foundation. All of the money raised from selling the macrame in the states is brought back to Tosagua to build community basic needs centers. 2011's music festival season brought back around $50,000 which funded the first community basic needs center in the outlying community of San Ramone. A basic needs center serves as a place of refuge in times of heavy flooding, a safe and clean place for the women to gather and work while providing a safe place for them to supervise their youngest children, and a place where they can access clean water. On top of all of this, giving the women an opportunity to make some money to support their families empowers the women, builds confidence which has a correlated reduction in domestic violence, and allows the fathers to not have to work 365 mixing deadly chemicals in their kitchens for a penny salary.
So...that's the lay of the lay of the Eden's Rose Foundation ( http://www.edensrose.org). When we arrived in Tosagua and caught a truck taxi to the house where it's based, we found Greg, Terra, a girl from Canada working with the foundation, and the family of Cecilia. The foundation is run out of Cecilia's home. She was one of the first women to graduate from the first macrame projects. Once while Greg had been back in the states raising money and things were falling apart organization-wise in Tosagua, it was Cecilia who took the responsibility to keep things together at the community level. It was Cecilia who began teaching the other women how to make the jewelry. Cecilia is one of those women who can do everything, make it look like nothing, and then do some more. She cooks for her family, and Greg, and volunteers when they're staying in Tosagua, she teaches daily macrame classes to women and children, she breastfeeds her infant son, she watches after her young daughter and her 10 or so year old son with what I would guess is autism as well as her husband, Mario, who has a heart problem, most likely from working 365 in the chemical-laden corn fields spraying. Never complains. Never yells. This is a "woman who runs with the wolves." We would go to the market every couple days, buy a bunch of veggies and rice or quinoa and Ceci would turn it into something delicious, normally a typical soup with a dish of rice and salad and meat when there was some and a fresh juice. Always delicious, always something different. Kara and I were given a room in Ceci's mother's house who lives next door. Jess was given a bed in one of the rooms in Ceci's house. No questions asked, no money asked for, just 100% pure hospitality, a part of the fam. We would help clean dishes and clean the kitchen and little chores here and there where we saw we could lighten the load off Ceci's shoulders. We sat down to speak with Greg about possible ways we could help out. We mentioned how we had just spent a week at the beach and witnessed the artists and vendors hawking all kinds of handmade jewelry to panama hats (made in Ecuador surprisingly) to trinkets most likely made in China. We talked about the opportunity for women to sell some of the macrame here in their own country in touristy places like the beach. We volunteered to head back to Canoa (had to really twist our arms for that to happen) and spend another week selling the macrame or at least seeing if there was a market of tourists to sell it to. We scrapped together some junk wood to make tables and bracelet poles out of and hit the malecon, or boardwalk. Kara, Jess, and I often took just the bracelet poles and walked down the beach stopping at sun bathing potential clients, introducing ourselves and explaining the foundation before trying to sell anything. We would explain how everything is made by hand and all the money goes back to the community to provide clean water and basic needs to families and especially children. This, being the truth, was a great advantage over some of the traveling artists from Colombia, or Brazil who sat in the street with their table and used their money from sales to buy beer or weed or what not. I'm not saying we didn't have our share of beer throughout the week but people are more likely to buy something when they know it supports a good cause. We met some amazing people walking around as well. In one restaurant, we sat down and met a group or paragliders from Oregon rockin out some sweet winds off the cliffs south of Canoa. They got into what Eden's Rose was about and each bought a couple bracelets, one woman particularly, Jane, this 50 or 60 year old ball of energy paraglider bought two $15 dollar bracelets but gave us $40 and just said put it all to good use. So generous. Another day in the week, met Kelly, a larger than life oil rig boat capitain from the bayou of the pan handle of Florida. Kelly didn't speak a lick of Spanish but that doesn't matter when you're as friendly as Kelly and drink beer like he does. You make bi-lingual friends fast. I met Kelly on the beach when he asked if Kara or I spoke Spanish and asked us to help him rent a beach chair. Easy enough. While doing so we struck up a conversation about the foundation and the next thing you know Kelly comes by the table and drops over $120 bucks on different pieces of macrame, all of which he would soon give away as gifts to new friends throughout the night. All in all, over the course of the week at the beach, we raised around $800 dollars for the foundation, quite a success. Ceci and her sister Loly came down a couple of the days to get an idea on how we were talking to people, what we were explaining, because one of our advantages to selling much of the macrame was our ability to speak English. Many of the people that ended up buying one or two bracelets at first when we greeted in Spanish just said "No gracias" or "No thank you" but when we asked where they were from and they said Canada or the U.S. or one couple from Germany who our friend Michael explained everything in German and sold them on the foundation (Thanks Michael!) their mood towards us changed. So....what we discussed at the end of the week was creating a volunteer role for Eden's Rose where future volunteers could teach classes of English to the women who were interested in selling at the beach. How sustainable will this small part be in the long run is unknown at this point but I'm excited to see the progress Eden's Rose makes in the next couple years.
From Canoa, we headed back to Tosagua for a day to recount all the bracelets, discuss the future of sales at the beach (Carnival, which is happening as I write this blog would be a great time to go down and sell), and make plans to head back north circa Otavalo to visit some indigenous Quichua artisans making hand knit hats, sweaters, hoodies, and wood carvings which Eden's Rose also incorporates into
their music festi sales. While in Otavalo, the three of us helped Greg and Veronica, the director of Eden's Rose in Ecuador, designing a new Grateful Dead baby alpaca hoodie using the GD turtles. And since Eden's Rose has a contract with the marketing company Rhino who sells official Dead gear, no one else can make and sell these alpaca hoodies. It will be kind of cool to sell these new hoodies at festies this summer and fall and know we had a part in designing them. We met a indigenous wood carver making Grateful Dead's Blues for Allah pic hand carved into nice slabs of wood. We met this cutest Quichua grandmother knitting hats. We sat in these people's homes, drank tea with them, ate maize with them, met their families. It was a truly rewarding experience and something I will be able to relate when volunteering with E's Rose back in the states.
From Otavalo, our time with Eden's drew to a close here in Ecuador. Greg headed back to the states to hit up a gem festival in the southwest to bring back rocks and gems to be wrapped and made into bracelets to be resold in the states this summer. We would be heading into the Amazon jungle with Charlie, the ethnobotanist we met through Greg in Tosagua, to spend two weeks teaching English and living amongst an indigenous Shuar community but that's for another blog. This was all catch up on the blog scene and a weight's been lifted from my shoulders. Thank you to everyone who contributed to buying a bracelet while we were in Canoa. You've made more of a difference than you can imagine. Thank you to everyone working with Eden's Rose Foundation especially Cecilia and Greg. You opened your hearts to three traveling vagabond volunteers and changed our course for the better. Through running into Greg and Eden's Rose, we met Charlie, and through Charlie, we met the community of Nantar where we arrived as strangers and left as family. I cannot believe this is our life. This is not a vacation but life happening. Let life happen. Let life happen.