Tag Archives: Ecuador

Drums for a Lost Song by Jorge Velasco Mackenzie

Drums for a Lost Song

Drums for a Lost Song by Jorge Velasco Mackenzie

Drums for a Lost Song by Jorge Velasco Mackenzie

Check out my latest project: a translation of Drums for a Lost Song by Jorge Velasco Mackenzie of Ecuador

Drums for a Lost Song by Jorge Velasco Mackenzie

I spent the past three years translating this work from Spanish, and it’s now available from Hanging Loose Press. The book is a magical realistic historical fiction, about a runaway slave from Ecuador’s colonial period.

From the Hanging Loose web site:

Drums for a Lost Song (Tambores para una canción perdida), Jorge Velasco Mackenzie’s tale of José Margarito,”the Singer,” escaping from slavery in nineteenth-century Ecuador, combines elements of Ecuadorean history, magic realism, and the African Yoru pursued through the landscape and the towns of coastal Ecuador by his master, Captain Manda, with an entourage of servants and slaves that includes Margarito’s lover, Pan de los Pobres; Lupina, a witch; Ochumare, the deity of the rainbow, god and goddess in one, whom Manda has also enslaved; and a notorious criminal from nineteenth century Ecuadorean history.

The narrative ranges through an array of adventures historical and otherwise: from the 16th century shipwreck that established a settlement of runaway slaves, to an escape via submarine, Ecuador’s civil wars, the tale of the goddess Iris-female manifestation of the rainbow deity (who may or may not be the Singer’s mother); meetings with the gods; a great banquet of Indians, soldiers, gentlemen and beggars; and the return of Halley’s Comet. In Drums for a Lost Song we encounter the cruelty of slavery, the exhilaration of adventure, dialogue that makes characters come to life, and the possibility that Margarito’s song—embodied in his story—may not be lost forever.

Get your copy anywhere online, but I recommend supporting Small Press Distribution and buying it here. Thank you for your continued support!

I’m really good at Ecuadorean volleyball

A huge part my Peace Corps experience was learning how go entire weeks at a time with absolutely no expectations of doing anything at all. Before my wife and I got shipped off to Ecuador in 2009, I pictured myself hard at work, building things, educating people, everything you’d imagine when you think of overseas volunteer work. But after two months of orientation with all the other volunteers-in-training, we were each assigned our own town where we’d live and work for the next two years. We had a party to say our goodbyes, and then we they basically told us, OK, go to the bus terminal, get out of here, shoo.


And that’s when reality kind of set in, as we bumbled our way through the city, realizing that it was going to be challenging enough just figuring out how to get where we were supposed to be going. Once we arrived at our site, my wife and I quickly found out that there wasn’t exactly a pressing demand for assistance from a couple of gringos who not only spoke very rudimentary Spanish, at best, but also didn’t know anything at all about everyday life in rural South America. Which isn’t to say that we didn’t get anything done, it just took a really long time to settle in.

We were each assigned an Ecuadorean counterpart, someone who would show us the ropes and help us get to work. And they were really cool. I mean, imagine you’re at work one day and someone drops off a foreigner who can’t speak any English, telling you, “Yeah, you’re going to have to buddy up with this guy for the next two years, get him up to speed.” So I have nothing but gratitude for the kindness and patience given to us by a couple of total strangers.

But yeah, it also meant that my Peace Corps service wasn’t going to be anything like I thought it would be. For the first few months, anyway, on a good day, we’d work for maybe four hours. And when I say work, I mean we followed around our counterparts and tried not to look confused. Smiling helped.

Eventually our Spanish got better, but until then, there was a lot of time to kill every day. Most people in our town came back from their farm work after lunch, and everybody just kind of hung out until it got dark out. And since we didn’t have any Internet or cell phone service or TV, we just hung out too. Groups of people would walk down the street and call us over, we’d go with them, and yeah, that was it, we just absorbed everything, like by osmosis, placed in this alien environment, our brains had to piece together what was going on.

Gender lines are pretty old school where we lived, and so my wife wound up socializing with the women while I gravitated to where the guys hung out. Which, as long as it wasn’t raining, meant the volleyball courts. Yeah, I didn’t expect volleyball to be a big thing in Ecuador, but basically every aspect of social life in our town centered around either drinking, cock fighting, or volleyball.

I’d stand around and try to wrap my head around the peculiarities of this local version of what I knew as volleyball. For one thing, the net was high, like about as high as a basketball hoop. Teams were three on three, and instead of using a volleyball, they used a number five soccer ball, which is much bigger and heavier.

At first I just kind of hung out on the sidelines, but out of pure curiosity, the guys started letting me stand in when the action naturally wound down as the sun set. I’m around six foot four, pretty tall here in the US, but I was by far the tallest guy in the province of Cotopaxi. So people would laugh as I’d wave my limbs around uncontrollably, trying to bounce the ball or set up a teammate for a volley.

It was bad. At first I couldn’t even handle the ball. It was really all I could do to try not to flinch as my soft wrists would bruise almost on contact. But after a while I began to get better. A lot better. Once I got the fundamentals down, I started using my height as an advantage that no other play possessed. Now I could spike the ball, or by sticking my hands straight up, I could block the opposing team’s shots from ever crossing over to our side.

My dominance in ecuavoley (yeah, that’s what it’s called) lasted for about a month until nobody wanted to play with me anymore. The spectacle of the tall American got old, and I found myself once again exiled to the sidelines, hanging out, losing my money at card games that I could never quite figure out how to play.

But then one day some of the guys had an idea. There was a volleyball tournament coming up in a town a couple of hours away. They didn’t really tell me any of the specifics, but for the next two weeks, I was back on the court, all of the men making sure that I’d be in good shape for the big day.

We all hopped into the back of a pickup truck and headed off down the winding mountainous dirt roads. An hour or so later, we merged onto a paved highway, and two hours after that, we were in some other small town. Any time we had to visit a neighboring community, it was like peeking into a parallel universe. Everything looked more or less the same, the town square, the simple houses, but of course it was a completely different place. Also, where I lived, I had the luxury of everybody knowing who I was. Sure, I was still an outsider, but the novelty of my presence had worn off. All of that went out the window when I left. Now my sense of being a foreigner was amplified.

We pulled up to the town jail, which I thought was kind of weird, but nobody else acted as if this wasn’t normal, and so I did what I always tried to do when I was so far out of my element that I didn’t know how to react, I pretended like I knew what I was doing, that this was no big deal for me either.

But as we pulled around to the backside of the prison, I’m sure my composure had to have been more than a little rattled. There were like hundreds of men standing around a single volleyball court, screaming, waving money in the air, drinking and fighting. I wasn’t prepared for this. It was like as soon as I got off of the pickup truck, everybody got a little quieter and started asking each other loudly, “Who the hell is this tall gringo?”

While we waited for our turn to play, random men would come by and offer me a shot of booze. I’d learned a trick to getting out of situations involving alcohol where I didn’t feel like drinking, I gave them four or five conflicting answers simultaneously, before walking away and smiling. First, I’d politely decline, then I’d say yes, but “After I’m done playing!” before rubbing my belly and acting like I was sick, and then making it look like someone else was calling me from across the court.

Finally it was our turn to play. The guy who drove the pickup truck walked over to the ref and counted out something like five hundred bucks. “What the hell?” I asked one of my teammates. “I didn’t know this was a high-stakes game. Who’s paying for this?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he reassured me without answering any of my questions, adding, “Just make sure that we win.”

I had a moment of pure panic. Either way this wound up playing out, someone was going to be out half a grand, and I was almost positive that I’d be held responsible for the outcome.

The ref blew the whistle. For the next half an hour or so, I operated on sheer adrenaline. The first time that I spiked the ball directly in front of the net, the crowd went silent. As I jumped and pounced again and again and again, they started cheering, roaring for me as I swatted the ball down, our opponents diving futilely face-first into the dirt floor, trying to at least lay a hand on the ball that sailed always a few inches outside their reach.

At one point about halfway through, I stopped for a minute to really just take stock of my surroundings. Here I was, a guy from New York playing a sport that I’d never heard of before behind a prison in a tiny town in South America. I’d just spiked the ball, and the people were going nuts, clapping, waving their money in the air to amend their wagers, shaking bottles of beer to spray me with foam in between volleys. I looked over to the side, and even the prisoners were in on the action, shouting, sticking their heads out of the bars of the windows, the cops every once in a while would wave their batons in the air threateningly, as if to maintain the illusion that there was any sort of order in place. We won. They collected the money, and we hopped on the back of that pickup immediately after and hightailed it out of town.

Let me assure you, I’m not very good at sports. I never made any of the teams in high school, and when I play basketball or soccer with my friends and family, it’s not totally unlikely that I might accidentally score on my own net.

But for some bizarro reason, I was really good at ecuavoley. So good that, after that tournament anyway, nobody would play with me ever again, because I was too good. Doesn’t that sound insane? Like I’m totally making it up? Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t all an elaborate dream, because I’m telling you, I have like really subpar hand-eye coordination, the motor reflexes of a poorly trained chimp. But I swear, for a little while anyway, I was huge in Ecuador. I was the best Ecuavolley player in something like a five-town radius.

Andean handicrafts

I lived in Ecuador for two years, and right before heading back to the States, I stopped by this giant artisanal market, a tiny town called Otavalo dedicated mostly to selling Andean handicrafts to tourists from all over the world. I’m looking around my house now and, I don’t know where any of those purchases are. I remember I bought all of these brightly colored woven tapestries, I definitely had a clear picture in my head at the time, I’d hang them in my living room, I bought a really narrow and long one that would have been great for the stairway.


But, I’m still looking and, OK, there it is, there’s something. I have this piece of furniture from IKEA, it has a bunch of wooden cubbies, and down at the bottom I’m seeing this giant mortar and pestle. You know, like when you go to a Mexican restaurant and they make tableside guacamole, it’s just like that, a huge stone bowl that’s as heavy as it looks.

When I took the hour-long bus ride from the capital to Otavalo, I actually had this particular item in mind. A lot of the Ecuadorean women would use these tools as a way to grind spices, and I thought it would have been such a cool addition to my American kitchen. How much would one of these things have cost in the States? Probably a lot. I got one from some vendor for thirty-five bucks.

I mentioned it was heavy, right? Really heavy. Like I had to carry it around everywhere I went, all the way back to New York. And now here it is, I see it, but in the three years since I’ve been back, I can clearly remember the one time I used it. I was cooking something, I wanted to use cumin, so I bought whole cumin seeds. After toasting them in a frying pan over low heat, I transferred everything to the bowl, where I used the oval shaped stone to crush it into a powder. Now that I’m writing everything out, I actually don’t know which one is the mortar and which one is the pestle.

But yeah, I used it once, and that was it. I remember trying to clean it out afterwards, I didn’t know how. The sponge was getting ripped up as I wiped the surface of the rock, and even though I ran it under hot water, I could never get out the cumin trapped in between the tiny crevasses of the surface.

I told myself, yeah, I’ll use this again, maybe I’ll make guacamole. But that was it, that’s the last memory I have of the mortar and pestle. I must have left it out for my wife to put away, and here it is, in this little cubby hole, right next to my hand-cranked pasta maker. That piece of equipment has a similar history, a big bulky purchase, a single use, and then banished to the cubby, to a lifetime of obscurity, unnoticed in the background of my everyday.

But where is everything else? I bought so many other artisanal goods. There were these two hand painted ceramic plates that … oh wait, that’s coming back to me. These things were beautiful, large round dishes that I had hoped to hang on the wall of my kitchen. But they were only wrapped in newspaper, and when I opened up my suitcase in New York, I could see that the mortar and pestle had smashed everything that it was packed against. So it was just this wrapped collection of ceramic shards.

Even that, even the trash, I had a vision of laying them out, as if I could glue them back together, like maybe I could hang up the broken pieces, so it would have this preserved-despite-being-destroyed museum like quality. I set the fragments to the side and, I’m positive that they were thrown out. Looking back, there’s no way I would have known how to even begin thinking about how I’d accomplish such a project.

I just thought it would have been nice, to be able to decorate my house will all of these cool souvenirs. But it’s all just taking up space, either in this kitchen, or more likely buried in some box in the basement somewhere. If I ever get access to a time machine, I’m going to travel back to that market, I’m going to confront myself and say, “Listen, Rob, this stuff is all really cool, but I want to let you know that it’s not going to work out, you’re just wasting your money. Go and have a nice lunch instead. Or just give me the money, and I’ll take it back to the future for the both of us.”

And I’m ready for that, I always have been. If a future version of me ever just pops up and tells me what to do, I’m not going to hesitate, or think that I know better. I’ll just do whatever he tells me. And my house will have so much less clutter and I’ll have all that money in my pocket.

When the lights went out

My wife and I lived in a pretty remote part of Ecuador when we served as Peace Corps Volunteers a few years ago. Our town was located in the foothills of the Andes, a place called Pucayacu. To get there, you had to take a six-hour bus ride from the capital, where you’d wind up in this smallish city called La Maná. After that, you either had to find another bus, or take the more popular and faster method of travel: hopping on the back of a pickup truck and snaking up the unpaved mountain roads until there was no more road to snake along.


And that was Pucayacu. The town itself was only something like sixty years old, and all of the adults that I talked to could remember what it was like when their parents or grandparents first arrived. Back then, there wasn’t even yet a dirt road into town, so in order to gain any sort of access to modern society, they had to spend half a day hiking all the way down to La Maná, load up their mules with supplies, and then climb back up.

Also, electricity was a somewhat recent development. There were still parts of town without any access to power. “Are they planning on expanding the power lines so everybody has light?” “Yeah, ya mismo,” was the standard Ecuadorean non-answer to any question involving time, loosely translated as sometime between five minutes and five years from now.

The power lines that connected to our part of town were built sometime in the seventies, but even while we were living there, power was a sporadic luxury. It rarely went out for more than a day or two at a time, but blackouts were a constant threat. Every once in a while there’d be a really big storm, and somewhere between us and La Maná one of the wooden posts carrying the power lines would fall down, leaving us without electricity until the utility companies could manage to locate and repair the damaged areas.

Going without electricity on a semi-regular basis, at first it was kind of like a novelty, I’d romanticize the simplicity like I was on some sort of an adventure. But after a while, these brief outages would sometimes bring me to my knees, make me realize just how pampered of an upbringing I’d had, totally reliant on all of the modern technology that I’ve always known to be a constant in my life.

During the day, it didn’t really make too much of a difference. But at night, it was like living in an alternate reality. Because what are you supposed to do at six-thirty in the afternoon when the sun goes down and you’re enveloped in total darkness? Everybody else lit some candles and eventually went to sleep. But for whatever reason, I could never get my body to shut down that early.

Candles are really creepy. While they’re essential in helping you navigate your way around the house, they have the undesirable added effect of turning any room into the scene of a horror movie. The tiny beetles attracted to the only source of light would project massive monstrous shadows on the ceiling. Or every once in a while a random draft of air would either extinguish or double the size of the tiny flame, sending chills down my back, like a wandering spirit had just entered the building.

My wife and I would sit around and play cards, or if our laptop had enough a charge, we’d be able to watch one of the bootleg DVDs sold on any street corner in the country. But even that was just a temporary fix. Sooner or later we’d be right back to where we were, sitting in the void, with no choice really but to wait until the sun came back up.

It was always dark without the lights, but usually there was some sort of illumination. The moon or the stars would be out, our eyes would adjust, and if we looked out the window we’d be able to make out the square of houses that basically made up the entire town.

But I remember one night in particular, the electricity was out, and it was pouring rain, the clouds obscuring any access to the night sky. It was only like nine o’clock at night, but it felt like an endless three in the morning. The entire town was out, my wife was asleep, but for whatever reason I wasn’t tired yet. And so I just kind of lay there, underneath the mosquito net, I held my hand up in front of my face and tried to make out something, anything. It was total blackness, probably the only time in my life that I could recall experiencing an absence of any light whatsoever.

I thought about how unsettling it was, and then I started thinking about our ancestors, how human beings have been around for so long, and this age of industry, of electricity, we’re the privileged few that have ever had access to such unimaginable comfort. What would it have been like if I were living here two hundred years ago? I doubt my bed would have been as comfortable. There definitely wouldn’t have been a mosquito net.

I started to feel really small. And then I heard something fly in through the window. It was always hot and humid, so even though there were insects everywhere, we really didn’t have a choice but to leave the windows open at all times. We got used to it eventually, the giant spiders and grasshoppers that lined the outside of our protective netting when we woke up in the morning.

I’m just kidding, I never got used to it, not really. It was just a thin net, it wasn’t like a force field. If a bug got lucky, maybe it could crawl underneath, through the bottom, trapping itself inside with us. I heard this thing fly in the window, it must have been huge because the vibrations of its wings flapping were low and deep, resonant like a stealth helicopter.

I could hear it hitting the walls, hitting the net, hitting the window, each time it collided in the dark it would get frustrated, the buzzing intensifying, me curling up into the fetal position, afraid that it might cling on to one of my toes through the netting. This thing kept me awake for a while, I could tell that it felt trapped, completely unable to process how it went from being outside, flying around in the open air, to all of the sudden accidentally slipping through our open window and winding up stuck in our tiny bedroom.

It’s amazing that we’ve made it so far as a species, because that type of fear has to be universal. I think about before modern times, before electricity, it was every night, another absence of light, another opportunity to sit there curled up into a ball, hoping the noises of the dark weren’t the warning sounds of anything too serious, maybe you could fall asleep, hopefully make it to the other side somewhat comfortable. And it was like, whenever it got really dark like that, I kind of felt it too, my instinctual fear, bubbling up from I don’t even know where, unable to tell see exactly where I was, or how I might react if anything really bad were to actually happen.


In 2009, my wife and I joined the Peace Corps and were sent to live in a rural town in the subtropics of Ecuador. One aspect of life that stood out as remarkably different was the sheer number of stray dogs roaming the streets.


They were everywhere, packs of dogs, hundreds of them, chasing motorcycles, digging through piles of trash, barking and howling almost constantly. It wasn’t too long before my wife started hinting that she wanted to adopt one of the countless puppies wandering the streets. And even though I protested, I knew that it was going to be difficult standing in opposition to my wife’s demands for a whole two years.

While not a lot of people kept dogs in the house like we do over here, nearly every little kid takes in a puppy now and then. It’s not a permanent relationship. The little fuzzball soon outlives its cuteness and the parents kick the dog to the curb. About a year into our service, the neighbors across the street found themselves in this exact situation.

This little girl came over to our house one day, hysterical, she’s holding this ten-pound mutt, no bigger than football really, it was black with a white belly and two eyebrow-shaped brown spots on her forehead. “Please Joannah,” the little girl sobbed, appealing directly to my wife, a wise decision, because I was already shaking my head no.

“Please, my parents are making me get rid of her. Will you take her? Please?” And my wife got all doe-eyed, she looked at this dog, it had a big read ribbon tied up into a bow where a collar should have been. She looked at me. I looked at the dog. In a moment of weakness, I said yes. Thinking about it now, I still can’t recall exactly what it was that moved me to agree.

I never wanted a dog, not really. We always had a dog in the house when I was growing up, and for whatever reason I never forged much of a connection with any of our pets while I was living at home. But once I said yes, that was it, the deal was done. The little girl smiled, ran out of our house, and this animal that we verbally agreed to adopt immediately took a dump on the floor before getting lost under our couch and gnawing on an electrical chord running across the floor.

Our neighbor called the dog Pelusa, which means “fuzzy” in Spanish. Most people in Ecuador who had dogs gave them similarly literal names. Black dogs were named carbón or sombra, meaning “charcoal” and “shadow” respectively. We weren’t crazy about the name, it was kind of like naming a pet “Spot.” So we changed it to Gladys, which we thought was kind of funny, because it’s a human name, but a really old-fashioned one, something from several generations ago.

Gladys was a handful. She was hyperactive the way all puppies are, but as she grew up, she never lost any of that boundless energy that made her so difficult to control sometimes. If anything, she was getting stronger. One time she escaped the house, jumped over a huge fence, and didn’t come back for a solid two days. When she finally returned, parts of her fur started falling off, which the local vet diagnosed as mange. This meant applying creams and force-feeding pills every day for a couple of weeks. I didn’t even know mange was a thing, but it’s a disgusting skin-eating parasite that, according to the Internet, can be transmitted to humans in rare instances.

Another time, she got loose in a chicken coop and actually got a little bloodthirsty. “I’m really sorry,” I told our uninterested neighbor as we coughed up the money to make up for the birds that Gladys has mutilated. The lady was probably thinking, what did you expect? There’s a reason nobody keeps these things in the house.

It was weird. Gladys was really sweet around us, but she definitely had a feral streak. Nobody else in town liked to walk too close to her, and people looked at us like we were nuts when they found out that we let her sleep inside.

But we had always planned on bringing her back to the States with us, and we figured that getting her fixed was a part of that process. What if she escaped again? What if she was in heat? Wouldn’t that sort of complicate things if she all of the sudden had a litter of her own puppies?

So we brought her to the nearest city and found a vet willing to do the surgery. We dropped her off in the morning, but when we came back to pick her up that afternoon, something clearly wasn’t right. For one thing, she couldn’t move, at all. What kind of stuff did they use to knock her out? “Don’t worry,” the vet assured us, “It’ll wear off … eventually.”

After hauling her immobile body onto a pickup truck to make the hour-long trip back to our town, Gladys wasn’t acting like herself anymore. She wouldn’t eat or drink, we couldn’t get her to move from this one spot underneath the table. She had to have been in pain, and when we went to take her bandages off to clean the wound, it was obvious that the doctor had messed something up.

The incision wasn’t the tiny inch-long cut I had remember seeing on our family’s dogs back at home. This was like a six-inch gash, and not even a straight one. The area was swollen, and as the night went on, it started to get bigger. By the morning, it looked like it was going to burst. A few hours later, that’s exactly what happened.

The rest of the story is pretty gross. The vet was an hour away, so I had to hold Gladys down while my wife went to look for some local help. She came back with one of our neighbors who had experience performing basic veterinary care to his cows, and so he drugged her up, stuffed everything back inside, and sewed up the wound with really thick cattle stitches.

When it started swelling again, we returned to the vet, who performed yet another surgery. At this point, Gladys had been put through enough torture. When her wound opened up again the day after that, we knew what had to be done. Our cow doctor neighbor gave me an injection he said would do the job, and it did, instantly.

There were so many dogs in our town, and they died all the time. They would get in fights and bleed out, or they’d get run over by a car and bleed out. If the packs got overly populated, neighbors would lay out poisoned food and the streets would be littered with dead dogs for days. Nobody buried animals. I saw it happen a few times where some guy would pick up a carcass with newspapers and throw it in the river.

But I just couldn’t do that to Gladys. I borrowed a shovel and took the body out to the woods and started digging. The whole process was a nightmare, a singular experience so far removed from anything that I’d ever imagined myself doing back at home. On my walk back home, I was caked in dirt and sweat, I passed a group of men who started making fun of me, asking if I was going to wear black for thirty days. The fact that I was now being laughed at, on top of everything that we’d just been through, this was so far outside the realm of what I could process. It felt more like a disjointed dream than actual reality. I couldn’t even get mad. Here I was, this total outsider, spending all of this time, energy, and not to mention money, on a dog. From their perspective, this was actual crazy.

News of our theatrics spread across town instantly, and the very next day, a different neighbor showed up at our house with a new puppy, the one that survived Ecuador, the one that made it back to the States with us. It was like, look, don’t be sad, there are plenty of puppies. Here, have another one.

Everything worked out the way it did, and I love our dog that we have now. Would I have done anything differently? I don’t know. We didn’t know any better. And Gladys had been put through so much pain. Even if she had recovered, she would have probably been emotionally scarred from the whole ordeal. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

But every once in a while, I’ll think of one memory that stands out. It was while we were waiting for her third surgery in that nearby city. We were early, and the vet wasn’t open for another hour or so. Gladys was in bad shape, but my wife got her to calm down somewhat as we hung out outside. I went for a quick walk, to buy a couple of sodas, and as I came back to where they were waiting, Gladys looked up at me from maybe half a block away and started wagging her tail, the way all dogs start wagging their tails when you come home or when they’re happy to see you. It crushed me, her loyalty, that insane indescribable bond that you can develop with an animal. It was like, despite the hell she was going through, she still saw me and thought, OK, here he is, this is totally normal, and everything’s going to be OK.