Life in el campo

Here are some scenes you missed. They’re not quite worthy of their own blog posts, but entertaining nonetheless.

Patricia’s nephews taught Dave a game where you whip a pointed piece of a tree branch — sort of like a dreidel.

Here I have a conversation with Rosa Maria’s turkey. Sadly he’s no longer a pair, as his novia swallowed a nail and died.

Here’s Dave harvesting some fruit to throw into our mandarina mermelada.

And this one shows the final step in making panela — keeping the extremely hot goo cool enough so it doesn’t solidify in the pot. Panela is the product of sugar cane juice.

Scaring cuys so they run and hide.

Rosa Maria

This is Rosa Maria. She’s setenta-mas years old according to her daughter, who said maybe she’s around 76. After marrying her husband when she was 18 she moved to the mountain town of Cuellaje where they raised their 11 children. Even in her setenta years, she still manages her farmhouse, feeds her chickens, tends to her rabbits and sells her avocados at the market. She’s our new host-abuela.

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And this is the bridge Rosa Maria has to cross simply to get to her property from the main road that leads to Cuellaje. On Sunday we met her in town just as mass was getting out and we all hopped into the milk truck that took us to her stop. Strapping on our 20+ kilo packs we headed down the side of the mountain toward her place. At one point she looked at us to confirm we were OK with crossing a puente de alambre which I knew meant wire bridge, but I guess I wasn’t picturing something so Indiana Jones-y.

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But it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a wire cable that runs from her side of the river to the other, and has skinny tree branches acting as planks that are secured with even flimsier wire. There are also “railings” made out of more skinny wire, and cut in pieces, so every now and then there’s a sharp end-piece that will rip your hand open if you’re paying too close attention to the rushing river underfoot. Sort of an interesting start to our second homestay.

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La Lechera

And you thought there wouldn’t be any seatbelts in South America.

Taking our second trip on the milk truck this morning I was relieved to find a bamboo pole overhead that at least provided something to hang on to as the U-Haul-sized truck bounced along the “main” road that leads to Cuellaje. The milk man transports Nestlé’s precious cargo to its factory every morning. The truck is equipped to carry 480 liters of milk, which leaves enough space for random passengers who want a 50-cent ride to… anywhere on his route.

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The system works like this: Every morning the milk man will drive along the main road stopping at pre-determined destinations (that are seldom obvious, more likely it’s just some vague stretch of dirt that locals seem to remember) to collect milk from various farmers who have hauled 40-liter containers – or rather their mules have hauled them – down from wherever they live, to this unmarked spot. He then hoists the full containers onto the truck, and pours them into his own aluminum jugs, then uses a dipstick of sorts to determine the amount of milk. Then he pays the farmers and continues on down the road to the Nestlé factory.

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If you’d like to hitch a ride, along with the milk, sacs of various vegetables and prohibited hens, all you have to do is figure out an approximate time when the driver will pass, flag him down, and hop on. The first milk truck we had wasn’t nearly as luxurious as the one that stopped today. The truck-bed in last week’s only had hip-high railings so you sort of had to sqat and hold at the same time. Today’s truck not only had the bamboo pole, it also had shoulder-high railings! Nice and sturdy. Not a bad way to travel for 50 cents.

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El Bravo

Angel, our current host-papa, makes his living raising bulls. At first I thought this made him a sort of matador, but turns out, he has just converted parts of his property into pasture land to fatten them up, and then sells them in Ibarra about five times a year at the animal market. The buyers are local meat plants that will turn his toros into burgers.

Just as his profession was starting to seem a little less Hemmingway and a little more Safeway, he started telling us about his plans to take the bulls to the feria, which meant contending with El Bravo. I had heard this word before used by a beekeeper in Colombia to describe his Africanized ladies as “mas bravas” than my bees in the states, which I took to mean aggressive, though my dictionary defines it as brave. Nice, I knew Angel was a bullfighter.

El Bravo, he went on to tell us, was more aggressive than his toro friends and we were told to avoid him the following morning when Angel would corral them into his truck and head off to the animal feria. Sort of dismayed, I asked how we would recognize El Bravo amidst his other bulls and he said he’s “el pequeño cara blanca.”

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In the morning, Dave and I walked up to the holding pen that was usually empty, but now it contained about 10 sorting, jostling, huge bulls. They were having trouble turning around in the small enclosure and had created a small circle around El Bravo. He was like the celebrity we came to stare at in awe, surrounded by his burly bodyguards. And he actually was the smallest one, but made up for it with his cara blanca that made him stand out and gave him a more unstable presence.

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When it was time, the truck driver backed up to the entrance of the holding pen and lifted up the metal sliding door. Angel and his 16-year-old son hopped over the wooden fence and took a stance in the back of the pen, armed with long sticks. Two more guys hung out inside the truck ready to usher in the future burgers.

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The whole process was over in about 30 seconds. Angel and his son began whacking the bulls with their sticks and eventually the herd decided the truck-bed would be a nicer environment. Unfortunately for the toros, the guys on the truck kept whacking them – this time in the face – to keep from getting gored, and to corral them toward the sides. As El Bravo approached I stumbled backward mostly due to fear and partly because I slipped off the fencepost that Dave and I were sharing. I jumped back up just in time to see El Bravo get a face-full of stick as he hopped on board.

With the bulls ready to travel, Angel dashed back home, changed his clothes, washed his hair, and de-mudded his boots – essentially transforming into a certified salesman. But in the end the bravado, aggression and courage didn’t count for much at the feria where kilos reign. Angle’s biggest bull would sell for about $800 that day. And El Bravo, about $550.

Lucera y Mora

Mule ride! Sounds like a good idea, in theory. That is unless you’re 6 feet tall and your feet practically touch the ground once you’re riding the animal. This was the case for Dave when Angel, our host-dad, told us to hop on two of his mules to ride up to another portion of his property. Things were going pretty well for me and Lucera (which means skylight), who was very obedient and didn’t mind trudging slowly up the endless dirt path. Mora (which means blackberry) on the other hand, seemed a bit pissed off to have tall Jesus on her back, and showed her displeasure by ignoring signals to keep moving and opting for a respite in a tasty patch of Guatemala grass. Eventually Angel tore off a sapling branch and gave it to Dave to use as a switch, to which Mora audibly voiced her opinion.

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In the end though, Mora got the last laugh while going up a part of the path that had recently been washed out by heavy rains. The slick soil was rife with huge cracks that just begged for an accident. Within a few minutes of heading up this part my mule was slipping a bit, and just as I turned around to check on Dave and Mora, I saw her lose her front foothold and awkwardly tumble into the side of the hill with Dave slowly falling off after her. I suppose it didn’t help that Dave’s “saddle” was actually a few feed bags stacked together.

And, just as he was starting to get to his feet, Mora gave him a little warning kick to remind him who’s boss. We walked the rest of this part – well, except Angel, who mounted Lucera with his 3-year-old and towed Mora behind him. Clearly this wasn’t his first rodeo.

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Here’s Dave back on the horse — once we passed the treacherous part.

Las palabras del dia

Mula – Mule
Derrumbe – Landslide
Lodo – Mud
Cowboy – Gaucho
Hierba/Pasto – Grass
Lucera – Skylight
Mora – Blackberry

Landslides

The rain finally caught up with us. After leaving Peru in November, a month before the rains set in, and narrowly missing the rainy season in Colombia that begins in March, we’ve managed to stay fairly dry. So maybe we were riding high on our hubris as we entered Ecuador, because neither of us bothered to look into weather conditions. And as it turns out, March is one of the rainiest months for this part of the Ecuadorian Andes. What we also didn’t know is that this frequent and heavy rain causes landslides on a regular basis.

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Attempting to hop on the milk truck into town yesterday morning, Dave, Ned and I – plus several ladies who had hauled huge aluminum containers of milk to sell – waited for an hour for a ride that never came. After phoning a few people more keyed into road conditions, we learned there had been five small landslides overnight, plus one big one that wiped out the road. Luckily Cuellaje is equipped with tractors that can plow through the fallen debris and clear the roads for traffic.

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Riding the milk truck into town this morning we were able to survey the damage. I’m fairly certain we passed more than five, but maybe people here don’t bother to count the little ones. For the most part the road is carved into the cliffside and remains unpaved. The landslides looked like someone had come along and hit some of the steepest overhead drop-offs with a chisel and the sandy soil simply crumbled into a heap. We passed several that had taken out trees and bushes. Others had piled into the road and tumbled down the other side of the cliff.

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But thanks to the town’s tractors, we made it to our homestay family and won’t have to head up that way again. Oh, also, it’s drier here! Take that rainy season.

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Cuellaje Alto, Ecuador

From Atacames we made our way to Quito (seven-hour bus ride) to Otavalo (two-and-a-half hours) to Cuellaje (four hours) where we stayed the night at a local inn for $8/person. Cuellaje is the small pueblo and the homebase for our homestay program. A British guy – known to gringos as Ned, and to Ecuadorians as Eduardo – moved to a remote section of the Intag province in 2007, and began organizing a volunteer exchange. For about $50/week he sets you up with a local family that is able to accommodate guests with room and board. Ned, and his Ecuadorian wife Patricia, also participate in the program and are one of the families you can opt to stay with. We intended on staying at their place only the first night, but because of a few overnight landslides, and a mañana-attitude in general, we stayed for three.

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In just barely three days, Dave and I could have qualified for our homesteading badges. In her downtime, the lady of the house manages to knit/crochet sweaters for her 2-year-old, make jam, weave baskets, wash clothing and cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sort of like a humming bird bouncing from her sink full of dishes, to her niña, to the kitchen table, she was even able to dwell on us long enough to teach us basket-weaving and knitting. We’re now the proud owners of two somewhat similar looking baskets made from local vines, and the little girl’s sweater now has a rather bunchy row of haphazard stitches that will forever illustrate my knitting prowess.

Ned, on the other hand, mostly sticks to his domain – the family’s extensive stretch of 70 hectares (about 140 acres) of Ecuadorian cloud forest. (What is a cloud forest exactly? Ned told us it was essentially a rain forest over 1,500 meters. It’s still wet and dense, but the terrain is extremely steep.)

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We took a three-and-a-half hour tour of the property with Ned as our guide, who fearlessly ambled through the jungle-like terrain, stopping occasionally to admire the old-growth trees virtually overrun by mosses, bromeliads, vines and a few shy orchids. He sort of struck me as Bear Grylls’s more camera-shy cousin – still survival-minded and skilled with a machete, but too savvy and practical to ever attempt stunts like Bear’s.

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And nearer to the house, Ned and Patricia also raise chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs and several dairy cows. Ned explained his aim was to live as self-sufficiently as possible, but life in a cloud forest is difficult for most vegetables and fruit trees. Still, Dave got his share of avocados, which made a daily appearance, as Patricia’s mom has a whole plantation of them on her property at a lower elevation.

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