Here’s some Mexican wildlife. I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to feed them, but Elyse couldn’t resist at least tempting these Brazilian aardvarks called coatis with her granola bar.

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But they’re not so cuddly when they’re swarming you from all angles.

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A few times some brave coatis even tried to chomp through her backpack.

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Elyse is our tourguide for the next two weeks. And because she’s technically a local — for at least a year — we’re getting the VIP treatment in Mexico City. Her friend Angel is an architect whose company was hired to help the sinking 19th century Catedral Metropolitana that was built atop Aztec and Mexica ruins. His office is in the crypt of the church, and during his extremely long lunch break Angel was able to give us the complete tour — including a trip up to the bell towers. Here we are on top of one of the inside arches.

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This window is part of the highest ceiling in the cathedral.

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Here’s Templo Mayor, which was part of the original Mexico City (Tenochtitlan) and was first built in the 1300s and unearthed in the 1970s. The cathedral was built on top of the ruins and is now sagging in the middle, slowly sinking back into what used to be a lake. Angel’s architectural firm was hired to figure out how to make the massive church at least sink evenly.

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We rode up Quito’s gondola today, called the TeleferiQo, which was very reminiscent of Medellin’s metrocable. It dumps you off at the top — at 12,300 feet — where there are supposedly stunning views of the city. Because we had rode up just after the afternoon thunderstorm had passed, the clouds at the top were pretty persistent. But here’s what we were able to see.

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Unlike Medellin, however, there’s not much of a park at the top of the TeleferiQo. Instead it’s sort of a free for all, with 11 km of hiking trails that snake around the Pichincha volcano.

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Here’s our attempt at a self-timed photo.

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And, when you get to the bottom, before you can exit, you have to walk through a sort of randomly placed amusement park. Sadly, like the rest of South America, none of the rides were designed for Dave the giant white guy.

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Which way does your toilet flush? Ecuador is privileged enough to have toilets that flush every way possible: clockwise, counter-clockwise and straight down.

Today we journeyed to the equatorial center of the Earth — two of them actually. The first, represented by a large stone monument and classic European-style landscaping, is where the French decided was the equatorial line around 1736. The second, about 200 meters away and built up to look like a sad mini golf course, is where someone came along — GPS in hand — and declared the actual equatorial line. Whoops.

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Here Dave debates about whether he should jump over the “equatorial” line.

While we went to the stone monument spot first, and were impressed with the landmark, we were told the GPS spot couldn’t be missed, and apprehensively left our equatorial theme park to venture to the other side of the cement wall. We exited through an iron gate, held open by the security guard, and were told to walk along the road, turn left, and go another 150 meters along a dirt path. The only indication of anything of interest in that direction was a faded, dirty sign that had a small arrow at the bottom and text that read 150m.

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And although our guide was clearly upset that the English-speakers cut his lunch-break short, he went through the full spiel. The $4 admission didn’t seem to be worth it after only seeing anaconda skins and photos of Amazon aborigines. But our guide pulled it together for the finale when he led us to the actual center-of-the-Earth line.

Here he did the water flow experiments, and we also successfully balanced an egg on top of a nail, which is possible because there are equal forces on both sides.

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El Sur

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The same effect on your inner ear makes it really hard for you to balance, so walking the equatorial line is actually quite difficult.

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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.

We left Intag this week. Before the crack of dawn on Thursday, Dave, Patricia, her brother, another volunteer and I threw down some breakfast, packed up our giant backpacks and crossed the bridge that connects Rosa Maria’s house to the main road, all before the sun came up. Which means we crossed this bridge in the dark. It was a nice little goodbye send-off.

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Waiting on the other side for Dave — still catching my breath and shaking off some residual jitters — I asked Patricia if she thought this bridge was dangerous. “No, not really,” she told me. Though, she added, this one time two 16-year-old girls attempted to cross it when the river was at its highest point during the rainy season and they fell off and were swept away. Shaking her head she added, their corpses were recovered farther down the river. Ah. Lovely.

As Dave shuffled across the last few feet I watched his headlamp bob and made sure he crossed to the other side safely. With the water rushing underfoot, coupled with the occasional slippery piece of branch that you walk across, what you have to keep in mind is: if a 70-ish-year-old woman can cross the bridge on a weekly basis — and survive to feed her chickens every morning — then us volunteers should be fairly safe. And according to Ned, Rosa Maria is lobbying the town government to put in a safer bridge.

But here’s a part of of the same river that’s not so scary.

Ah Catholic mass. You’re not really in South America until you’ve attend church, right? At least that was my mindset as we decided to heed the call of the Sunday bells and file into the church with the rest of Cuellaje. The building was sort of how I remembered churches — quiet yet creaky, with a faint attic smell, and lots of religious accoutrements near the front where all the action takes place. As if on cue, community members took their seats, kneeling down on the wooden beams to acknowledge the holy trinity, and with creaking knees standing back up to park themselves on uncomfortable benches. This particular church didn’t cater to pampered American tushes, and went for the more bare-bones approach, sans cushion. Still I was excited to practice my Spanish and eventually be able to tell locals that while I wasn’t Catholic, I did attend mass recently. Dave, who has achieved most of the important Catholic milestones, was going to translate for me, because, apparently, all masses are delivered in more or less the same fashion.

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It was going along pretty well, and I was starting to see why so many people came to hear this guy talk. He was commanding! Plus, I realized how he conjures that air of importance: glasses! He was probably the first person we had encountered in Cuellaje who actually wore them. Intelegente indeed!

Then I started to pick up on a recurring word that the man in the purple robe kept using. Thrown in there with “ebarazada,” “niños” and “hijos” was “aborto.” When I listened in more closely — trying to decipher his words through the scratchy amp installed overhead — I realized he was telling the citizens of Cuellaje that all pregnancies were the will of God. I had to stifle a scoff. I looked around for some sympathetic agreement, but only received brief acknowledgement from elementary school boys who were falling asleep in their pews.

The priest went on to say he liked this community because families had eight, nine, 11 children. It was great! Babies a plenty. Not like that disgraceful Brazil, which handed out condoms during the Carnival parade. For shame. His sentiments, bathed in judgment, I’m sure didn’t fail to deliver a healthy dose of guilt throughout the church.

I knew my views were really in the minority when he surveyed the crowd, asking for expecting mothers to raise their hands. Four soon-to-be moms sheepishly raised their hands and were then asked to come to the front of the church to get some holy water poured on their foreheads. Each woman was my age or younger — and there’s plenty of time left on my biological clock, no rushing here. As they dispersed back to their pews, I had to suppress a laugh as I read one of the women’s shirts. It had the word “sexy” scrawled across it in coquettish pink script.

Dave and I spent this week on Rosa Maria’s farm. And while it was really just a short amount of time, I like to think I learned a few farm lessons.

  • You need rope to milk cows

So make a lot – rope that is. Every day Patricia took us up the hill to greet her family’s three dairy cows and reunite them temporarily with their three calves. To do this we had to untie the young bulls, herd them toward their mamas, and then tie up the dairy cows’ legs and tails so they wouldn’t walk away as we started to milk them.

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Our first attempt at milking the cows was pretty pathetic, especially while standing near Patricia who was able to produce steady streams of milk that shot into her pail nearly every second. Dave and I thought our cow was broken and dried up, until Patricia came over and effortlessly filled up our pail in less than a few minutes. Now, however, after one week, we’re starting to get the hang of it.

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Back at the house, Rosa Maria showed us how to make rope from a plant that looks like a giant aloe, called sisal. Apparently they grind down the giant leaves and peel away the fibers to make rope.

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  • Machetes are everywhere

So watch out. Today Patricia led me and Dave to a waterfall that hadn’t been visited in some time. As usual, she toted a machete and hacked through creeping vines and rotten trees that obstructed the path. As Dave and I bared the freezing water for a few minutes, Patricia busied herself by clearing more of the brush, swinging the machete in all directions like she was conducting an orchestra. There had been a small landslide – of course – so there was plenty of debris for her to chop. Dave and I were standing about 10 feet away, drying off our feet after our dip. I looked to my left to watch Patricia slash a thick vine sideways, but she only cut about halfway through. As she raised her hand up again and went for another backhanded slash the machete flew out of her hand and summersaulted handle over tip toward me and Dave, slicing through the one-foot space that separated us, and finally crashing into Dave’s boot. Good thing he had put his shoes on.

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Despite the flying machete, the waterfall was pretty cool.

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  • Not all chickens were created equal

So eat them while they’re fat, and scoop them up when they’re slow. For the past week I’ve delighted in watching the tiny week-old chicks that peep nervously behind their hen-moms and seek refuge under her feathers at night. Yesterday Dave and I found a new family of three yellow chicks who looked about as small as the eggs they hatched out of. One was clearly the runt because he couldn’t keep up with his slightly larger siblings and when he tried to run after them he tripped over himself and wasn’t exactly coordinated enough to get back up. I knew he was kind of slow when I was able to pick him up and pet his head.

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Today Patricia’s 2-year-old daughter Sarah came up to the porch holding a dead yellow chick around the belly, shaking her fist to make its head swing. Not entirely sure how he died, and Sarah didn’t tell us where she found him, but I’m pretty sure it was the same chick.

And while this one died at only a few days old, for the past week we’ve been eating other chickens raised on the farm who at least grew in their feathers before meeting their end. Rosa Maria told us the younger chickens were the tastiest, but an older hen would also do, as long as she was fat enough.

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  • Everyone likes avocados

So plant lots of them. Turns out the only way to propagate the avocados grown on Rosa Maria’s farm is through grafting. While the backyard is nearly completely shaded by avocado trees weighed down with heavy fruit, the pits that manage to germinate grow into trees that do not produce fruit. Instead when Rosa Maria came to this house years ago she brought with her small pieces of her old avocado tree and grafted them onto to sterile saplings.

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Pigs, dogs, squirrels, niños, everybody loves avocados.

 

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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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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