Saturday, January 30, 2010

Night in the Shuar village

Linda brought in candles, melted them to the wooden table and a small wooden shelf on the wall and lit them so that we would have light. We had a supper of spaghetti with meat s
auce which I admit was difficult for me to eat because of the unknown origin of the salty meat. Cui (guinea pig), pork, whatever. Tsunki joined us and Victoria, Mango and Bridget went back and forth with the dishes and things. We drank a delicious sweet tea. Tsunki talked about his life and dreams. He has spent many years living in Ecuador’s cities working as a guide in the rivers and forests. He has tried to visit Europe and the US several times at the invitation of people he has worked with in Ecuador, but each time is denied a Visa. He would like to travel, but also realizes that moving away wouldn’t get him anything more. He has a friend that lived in Spain for many years. He saved up enough money to come back to Macas and buy a house and taxi. He smashed the taxi because he has a drinking problem. He lost the house because he had to pay for the taxi. Many years wasted in a cold cruel world and no better off. He says, especially now with the children, he feels like he has everything he needs here. Safe environment, loving family, enough food and all the free healthcare he might need.

So different than my perspective. I see the kids in their always dirty clothes, rotten teeth, haphazard schooling, living surrounded by venomous snakes hours from the nearest hospital. What future have they got? But maybe their future is right for them.

Jose came in later to chat and share Shuar music with us. His Spanish isn’t that good and my shuar is terrible. I forgot immediately every word he taught us. We had rather magical evening while he played the simple instruments – a wood flute, a single stringed violin, a drum and a tortoise shell that you played by rubbing your hand on its resined edge. It is quite a bit harder to make the low, haunting vibration than it looks. Jose sang love songs and folk songs. We tried all the instruments too. Jonathan was pretty good and he played

the flute while Tsunki played the violin and Jose rubbed the turtle shell.

When it was time to sleep, Linda built a fire in the middle of the room with long logs that met in the middle where the fire was. This would keep the mosquitoes away. There were no bed nets as promised. But fire really did work. Unfortunately, we didn’t know how to tend a fire like that and it went out and we were quite cold. We didn’t have sleeping bags, so she rounded up what she could find from her house – a couple blankets and a very rank sleeping bag. We slept fully clothed on our wooden platforms, making pillows for ourselves out of the few remaining clothes we weren’t wearing to keep warm. We did not sleep much.

Noah woke up at 5:30 (prime snake time) with terrible stomach pains (that damn chichi!) It was raining. Jonathan went with him out into the field with a flashlight. They got back ok and it was finally breakfast time. We had coffee and bread brought from the city with eggs. The fire was built back up in our room because Jose had a patient. A young girl who has been having seizures. They boiled the leaves for the tea for hours.

Meanwhile, Jose took us out in the canoe to see the birds and plants down the river. All the kids followed along and climbed the trees waiting for us to return. Next activity was using the long poison dart gun. That was really fun. The kids and Jonathan took turns blowing a bamboo splinter through a hollow wooden tube. Only Jonathan met the target – a banana on a stick. Tsunki tried to shoot a bird

out of a tree, but couldn’t get a clear shot.

After lunch – steamed fish with yucca in banana leaves – we walked back out of the forest where Marcelo was waiting for us on the road with the taxi. We walked across the bridge, said good bye to Tsunki and his family who were going to San Jose, Tsunki’s home spend New Year’s Day with his family and returned to the hotel for our things. They were all there. So was the car. Time to head to Baños.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Into the Jungle Dec. 29

Things were better in the morning. The young guys who ran the hotel made us a nice breakfast. Our choice of hot milk or water with instant coffee, juice, scrambled eggs and white rolls . . . again! Lots of backing and forthing, better to leave the ipods in the luggage left in hotel or carry it into the jungle to get rained on. Hard to decided, but finally the ipods were stashed in our luggage and we gave the receptionist guy an extra 5 dollars.

Jonathan took Jules out early to get boots. The merchants were scratching their heads at the request for a size 481/2 rubber boot, calling out to their friends – hey, look at the size of this sneaker! Jules squeezed his foot into the 45 and we decided it would be ok in a pinch and threw them into the backpack.

Tsunki did arrive at 9:00 as promised, but then we went with him to a bakery and sat and waited for him to get a few more things until 10:30. It wasn’t so bad because we got to people watch and talk to Linda and Victoria and hear all about their lives. Sisters in their mid twenties, they both studied in Macas where they worked while they were attending school. Now their brother is attending the same school. They said it was a good school, but there was still a lot of racism that exists against the Shuar. Linda studied social studies and is now an adult literacy instructor living in Macas. Victoria, Tsunki’s wife, studied agronomy and now dreams of starting a cinnamon plantation on her father’s land. She has it all figured out and only needs about $500 to plant one hectare of trees. Although this is just the sort of entrepreneurial endeavor we are fond of supporting, we were only momentarily tempted to just hand her the money.

Victoria and Linda have 10 siblings and their father, Jose, is the shaman whose home we will be visiting. Jose is originally from Peru and became a shaman because his mother died when he was only 2 months old. His survival was viewed as a sign that he should be raised as a shaman. He has passed his knowledge onto one of his older sons, but that son feels it is much easier to work in the hardware store in Macas.

Finally, finally, Marcelo the taxi driver pulls up in a taxi yellow pick-up truck. We throw our bags in the back along with the women and children and my family rides in the cab with Tsunki. We go about 2 blocks and stop and wait for Tsunki’s in-laws for some unexplained reason because they aren’t going with us yet. After about twenty minutes waiting and chatting, we leave Macas for the jungle. It is about a 20 minute drive on the main highway and then we turn off the road onto a dirt road toward the village. The road passes fields and gets steeper and muddier. After about 40 minutes we all pile out of the car at the bridge. Tsunki goes across the plank covered suspension bridge to check it and then we all walk across. Then Marcelo drives across and we climb back in and continue up the mountain aways to a small settlement. Marcelo lets us out there and we take our stuff. Linda pulls on her rubber boots, but turns out they actually didn’t bring any for us. It’s not raining anyway, so its not a big deal. We walk up a very muddy road for a while and then cut up a path over the mountain. Steps have been worn into the clay so it is pretty easy to climb, but it is straight up. Along the way, we meet people going both ways heading into or out of town carrying their things in a bag over their shoulders. We stop and shake everyone’s hand as we meet them and say good-bye.

After an hour we come to Jose’s compound. A whole bunch of kids come running over to meet us, but Tsunki’s six year old daughter Bridget gets there first shouting “Papa, papa.” She comes over and talks to us. They have lots of visitors but it is still interesting when new people show up. There were about 6 little kids and 3 adolescent boys, but I couldn’t keep the names straight. The

compound comprised of a few wooden houses and a bamboo guest house with thatched roofs. The houses were around a big muddy field that had a volley ball net across the middle and soccer goal posts at both sides. One wooden house was a big kitchen with a fire in the middle where Victoria had quickly got to work putting parts of a freshly slaughtered chicken on the fire to grill with her bare hands. Instead of cutting the wood into fire circle sized pieces, the fire was fed with huge, long logs that they kept moving to feed the fire as they burned up.

Tsunki showed us our quarters. It was the large oval bamboo house with a thatched roof. The bamboo strips were about an inch apart, so you could see everything through the walls of the house. Especially if you walked a little fast around it while looking though the wall, like when you ride your bike by a high slat fence. Chickens were circulating freely through the house, which had a dirt floor, There was a table with two benches and three ba

mboo beds. A very old shoe was in one corner. The beds were about two feet off the ground and were just slats resting on the frame. No mattress, possible a good thing for hygiene, no sheets, no blankets. The boys threw their bags in a corner, pulled out a deck of cards and hunch

ed on their sleeping platforms. Jonathan eventually went to ask about bathrooms and was told they just use the jungle. I drank less water and tried not to think about snakes.

We went to check out how lunch was coming and Victoria and Linda were making us these beautiful plates of chicken, yucca and salad. Their famil

y was picking meat off of a fish sitting on the table and eating a ton of oranges. They showed us the hedgehog they had in a bag and assured us that it was going to be a pet, not dinner. Linda carried our food over to our palatial digs and Tsunki joined us for a delicious lunch, but Linda and Victoria went back to hang out in the cook house where the rest of the family was. Jonathan just had to ask whether Tsunki drank Chicha, a fermented concoction of yucca and maize that is rep

ortedly chewed and spat into a bowl to get it going. He sent his Tsunki Jr. to go get some and he came back with a gourd full. Tsunki took a drink, passed it to Jonathan who took a tiny sip, then me then Noah. Jules declined and Tsunki Jr was taking large gulps. It tasted like yeast water and a little like beer.

After lunch, we were free to explore and relax. The little kids were swimming in the river, letting the current carry around the bend and into the deep the swimming hole. The big kids were leaping off a cliff into the swimming hole and then clawing their way back up the muddy bank grabbing onto tree roots, branches, each others legs, to g

et to the top to jump back in. I thought about it, but couldn’t bring myself to do. Several toddlers were hanging out at the top of the cliff, but they didn’t fall in. My kids

didn’t want to swim because of the proximity of live stock (two enormous oxen) to the river and their fear of snakes and parasites.

Later Tsunki showed us around and introduced us to medicinal plants in the rain forest. There were two kinds of hallucinogenics that Jose uses in his healing. One you take the leaves and a few small branches and boil it. Then Jose drinks the liquid, vomits and has visions about what is going on with the sick person. Depending on the level of knowledge and maturity of the ailing one, they might also ingest some of the liquid. The hallucinations last for about 8 hours. After the visions, Jose treats

the sick person according to the insight he has gained. He has a wide knowledge of rainforest medicine and knows which plants have the required effect on his patients.

Another of the hallucinogenic plants that Jose sometimes uses grew right by the cliff where the children were playing. Seemed to me it was a datura, but I’m not sure. It is used the same way as the other, but the visions last for FIVE DAYS. He said sometimes hippies take as a

recreational drug and boy are they sorry when they start vomiting and don’t get out of the trip for 5 days. We also saw all of the various snake bite plants. Tsunki assured us that he always carries leaves with him when he is with tourists. Once a Polish woman got bitten by a snake and he administered the leaves every half hour until they got her to the hospital in Macas. She was fine. How much time do you have, I asked warily, thinking back on how long it took us to get in? Well it depends on the snake, he said. With an equis you’re a goner in a few seconds. We were relieved to hear he hasn’t lost a tourist yet.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Andes to Amazonia – Road to Macas - Part 2 -Dec. 28

Lots of traffic out of Baños because they are putting lights in the really long and dark tunnels and we have to be detoured one lane of traffic at a time on the old road which is now a bike path. We aren’t worried though because Jonathan asked the guy stopped in front of us while we were waiting what the road to from Puyo to Macas was like. He said it was new and paved and really fast. Turns out he was RIGHT!

The paramo had given way to trees and water falls and as we wound around the mountains to Puyo we were the only ones on the road, except for the occasional bus or truck full of coke bottles. Huge purple orchids grew by the road and the trees were full of bromeliads. As we got closer to Puyo, leaves got bigger and greener and it was altogether more humid and tropical.

Unfortunately, I now had the virus that had been going around the family and in my feverish state I became obsessed with the intricately knit fuchsia shawls the girls in the last mountain valley were wearing and I deeply regretted not having bought the hand spun yarn in Chugchilan simply because it wasn’t alpaca. It seemed a grave injustice that I was knitting gray wool in this environment. Each valley in the Highlands had a different type of dress. Some skirts were long – a single piece of velvet wrapped around and secured with a hand woven belt. Other skirts were knee length and pleated. Some wore blouses that were intricately embroidered and others factory made sweaters. Woven shawls were popular some places and hand knit in others. Sage green, deep teal, fuchsia and mustard were the dominant colors. Hats were worn by all women and ranged from a perky alpine version to a more rounded sailor type made out of felted wool. Almost all women in the mountains wore this traditional dress, even when they were working in the fields in the pouring rain.

After Puyo, the road, scenery and people changed dramatically. We were heading into the Amazonia on a brand new asphalt road that carried us in a straight line to Macas. Banana groves and sugar cane lined the road. It was hot and people were wearing shorts and t-shirts walking down the highway like it was a path. Which is was to them, but not to us. We saw lots of new government built houses. They were all the same cement and tin roof model built right beside the more traditional wooden houses of that area. Later someone told us that the people still sleep in the wooden houses because they are afraid that the cement ones will fall down on them when they are sleeping and crush them.

Macas as a town has nothing to recommend it and our hotel, described in the guide book as clean and modern was anything but. The power was out when we arrived and we walked up three flights of stairs to our dark and mildewed rooms. We opened all the windows to let in as much dwindling light and air as possible. When the lights came back on around 7:00 the room was even more disheartening because you could see all of the dark smears and unidentifiable crushed insects on the walls.

We met our Shuar guide, Tsunki, at a desolate sports bar and pizza place for dinner. He bought his son, also Tsunki, and wife and sister-in-law with him. Now, we had researched some fancy jungle echo lodges for this trip, but we had decided that rather than doing a packaged excursion to see the tourist version of the Amazon, we should go directly and make sure that all of our money went right into the community. It momentarily slipped our minds that we are a middle-aged North American couple with two exceedingly bourgeois teenagers that have been living in the lap of luxury for the last six months. We just thought it would be real.

Tsunki explained the trip in – we would take a taxi to a village and then hike about an hour to a small community. Did we have back packs? Well no, but we had two bags we could carry on our backs so we could repack. There are a lot of snakes he said, do you have rubber boots? Well, no. That’s okay, he said, we will find some. We pointed out that Jules wears a size 15 shoe and he admitted that would not be possible to find. Do we need bed clothes, I asked, because we don’t have sleeping bags. Don’t worry, he said, we’ll have something for you. The beds are bamboo and we have mosquito nets. We would be staying with his father-in-law the Shaman for one night and then heading back. But we booked two nights, we said. Tsunki was under the impression that it was two days and one night, but he assured us we could stay longer if we wanted. Oh no, we said, one night will be fine.

He told us more about the snakes and the river explained in great detail a series of murders that had been taking place recently in the community. It seems that over the last 5 years, 12 Shuar women have been molested, killed and decapitated. Some in the community blame the influx of tourists into their isolated villages for bringing the murderer. We got ready to retire to our hotel for the night and he asked us if we might possible be able to pay the rest of the money we owed him for the trip now, because he had a few more things he had to buy to get ready. We did.

Back in the hotel, at least there was hot water. We repacked all of the clothes we needed into two bags and organized to leave the rest of our things under the care of the hotel while we were gone. I still felt ill and just wanted to crawl into my none too clean bed, but it was covered with everyone’s stuff and tensions were quite high. We finally got organized and the kids went to their stinky room. Right before going to bed, Jules found a baby scorpion on his bedspread. We checked all the beds and fell into exhausted but fitful sleep.

Andes to Amazonia – Road to Macas - Part 1 -Dec. 28

We had a long drive ahead of us out of the mountains to Baños, on to Puyo and then to Macas where we were planning on spending the night before heading into the jungle the next day. The road was reputed to be new and paved. Turned out to be true only for the road from Puyo to Macas. People lie and the guidebook (Lonely Planet) sucked. We were always stopping to ask directions which seemed only to be reliable from taxi drivers who had actually been to where we were going. Very few people drive in Ecuador and if you just travel from town to town on the bus you don’t necessarily know which way to go. Not that that would keep you from telling someone else how to go.

First we passed by Lake Quilotoa which we had visited the day before. The lake is a green crater lake surrounded by paramo (high Andean grasslands). Lots of kids were out with their flocks. We shared a chocolate snack with one 15 year old shepherdess named Blanca. We were asking her what the names of the animals were in Quechua. Not sure if it was a lack of Spanish or Quechua knowledge or our funny accent, but all of the grazing animals were same – What do you call a sheep? Llama – What do you call a llama? – llama. What do you call a goat ?– llama. What do you call a ram? – llama. And so on.

After Lake Quilatoa we were on the paved road for about 2 kilometers and then it deteriorated to a rockslide covered washboard gravel lane with buses bearing down on us from both directions. About 20 km outside of Baños, we asked directions and a gas station attendant sent us down a new road going in that direction. Is it the fastest way? Yes. Yes. Is it paved? Oh sure brand new. Is it the best road? Yes! It wasn't.

Forty minutes later we stopped in Baños which is a lot like Hood River, Oregon for lunch. We had some quick sandwiches, anxious to get back on the road because we realized this just might take longer than we expected.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Black Sheep Day Dec. 27

Jules had a slight fever so he was excused from the hike and he relaxed with the chickens and sheep while Jonathan, Noah and I hiked up the mountain, along the ridge and down the other side a bit to the cloud forest with our guide Rodrigo. The sheep, black of course, are grazing on these really steep and rocky slopes. One back foot is tied with a rope with the other end attached to a peg driven into the ground. Don’t they ever fall? I asked. Rodrigo said, yeah, sometimes when it rains a lot. I pictured them hanging off the cliff, saved by the rope on their back leg while the rain pelts their fluffy fros into mats.

We walked up past the fields. Everyone in this area has family fields that are not necessarily right by their house, but close enough to work on everyday. The fields are divided up amongst the children in the family and they have really big families. Rodrigo said it isn’t such a problem because so many leave to go work in a bigger town or city. He is still in high school but finishing up in a year and then he too will go to the city. He attended the bilingual (Quechua/Spanish it is the blue building in the picture) school for most of his education, but switched to a Spanish speaking high school so that he could also learn English.

We were winded walking up the mountain. Black Sheep Inn is at 10,500 ft. Along the way, we bought our ticket from a small boy whose family owns the cloud forest reserve. The money they make from tourists is enough that they don’t need to cut the trees for income. We passed flocks of sheep and lots of fields. One small girl was holding a brand new lamb that she showed us as we walked by. We were in the clouds on top of ridge and sheep and cows and llamas appeared suddenly out of the mist. We met an old woman walking very slowly with a load of firewood on her back.

It started to rain, but when we entered the cloud forest the leaves protected us from the big drops and we were just in the mist of the clouds and the rain from the trees. It was a million shades of green and the trees were covered in moss. It reminded me of nothing more than a walk in a Northwest forest. Rodrigo showed us many important plants with very specific uses. One was used to give vicious dogs a bath so that they calmed down. Another was good for your hair. Maybe it was the same plant.

We walked back by the road and met a friend of Rodrigo’s who was leading a mare and her shaggy haired colt back down the mountain. The colt was afraid of us; he kept spooking and running away.

Jules was feeling better when we got back and I had a really good massage from Irina, a Russian woman who has been living in London or traveling the world for the last many years. She also teaches yoga, reads tarot and does natural healing. She was only 3 years younger than me, but she looked like about 20 years younger. I only hated her a little bit for that.

Over at the lodge we met Susan and her daughters, Eve and Katie, a lovely New York family with whom we had what was agreed by all to be the best evening of the trip. Although Eve and Katie are much more grown up than our boys –Katie is a teacher finishing up her masters and teaching ESL in the Bronx and Eve is in college – Jules and Noah were so happy to talk to them. Susan and I bonded on knitting and other important things in life. By the end of the evening, we were planning a yarn hunt and lake hike for the next day. Unfortunately, Katie was coming down with acute bronchitis and had to go back to Quito to the hospital, but not until we had scoured Chugchilan for the elusive alpaca yarn Sarah told us was for sale there. We said our good byes and promised to visit the next time (June) we are in New York. Katie got good treatment and antibiotics, headed to the beach and is much better now.

December 26 – Black Sheep Inn outside the village of Chugchilan on the Quilatoa Loop

No traffic from Quito to Chugchilan as we drove up into the mountains on Christmas Day. We turn off the Pan Americano and onto the Quilotoa Loop which is a mostly paved road that connects scattered Highland communities. Farmers are growing corn and potatoes, on fields that seem at times to be at right angles to the road. The fields aren’t terraced, but each row is a ridge that traps its own water. I am amazed that it works and all the soil isn’t washing off the hills. These mountains are densely inhabited and there are very few forests left. Every inch is fields or pasture. Cows graze, good old black and white Herefords like at home. Each fold of cliff that holds a mountain stream has a flock of fluffy sheet eating the green grass that grows there.

As we drive the first part of the loop, children and sometimes adults come running when our car goes by. They beg for money. We are astounded because they seem to be so much better off than most of the people in Nicaragua, but we only see people asking for money along the road when they have taken the time to fill in the pot holes with dirt. We don’t give. It is hard not to. Far easier to throw out a few coins because it makes no difference to us and can mean something to them. I don’t want to be part of upsetting the rightful balance of parents providing for their children. The more children collect, the more likely their parents will send them into the street to beg which is a dangerous occupation for a child. This is the country of 21st Century Socialism anyway. We did hand out some fruit which was met with curious stares by most.

We pulled into the Black Sheep Inn which turned out to be a very welcome piece of all that we love about mountain inns back in the States. Low impact cabins (compost toilets!) spread on the hills. Cozy lodge with a wood stove, tons of books, endless coffee and constant cookies and brownies. Adrés and Michele had the dream to open the inn seventeen years ago after the visiting the area. They worked hard to make money in the States for 3 years then returned to buy the land and build the business. Their work really paid off in a sustainable and respectful business in this indigenous mountain community where every detail was taken into consideration.

But the most fantastic thing about the Inn was Sarah – innkeeper, camp director, astute social engineer. She is working at the Black Sheep Inn with her partner Matt for a little while as they embark on their out of States adventure for a few years. There were 36 people staying at the Inn over Christmas and Sarah remembered everybody’s name, what they wanted to do the next day, how they liked their sandwiches and figured out who they might like to sit with for dinner. Her incredible spirit turned this very transient place into a community, even though we were together for only a few hours or days. She explained her secret (aside from her outgoing personality) to us when we asked how she remembers all the names. There is no trick, but she shared a story that helped form this part of her. Even though she is not religious, she was at an Easter sunrise service once when the pastor told how Mary recognized Jesus when he came back from the dead only when he “called her by her name.” She was struck by the power of calling someone by their own name, the special name selected for them by their parents. Now it is part of the way that she really listens to people, calling them by name to signal her respect for them as an individual.

So I am trying to be more like Sarah. Of course it is hard for me to really listen over the roar of my own thoughts and anxieties when I meet someone for the first time, but I will try.

The boys were thrilled that the strictly vegetarian menu was suspended for the night due to Christmas and we were having turkey and gravy.

View outside our room at 7 am.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Quito – City Life – Dec. 24

We spent all day walking around the beautiful colonial city. Quito sprawls across a whole valley, but the old center is concentrated at the bottom of a few steep hills. Green mountains backdrop impressive squares and churches. There are restaurants and cafes and museums. We circulate through a few lavishly gold plated churches full of mostly indigenous worshipers wearing pleated skirts, knee socks and alpine hats.

Visit a couple of museums featuring the Quiteño school of painting – Christian themes that I am afraid make my children’s eyes glaze over. Lots of white and bloody Christ statues and one of Saint Francis flaying his own back with a barbed wire like whip. The Virgins for the most part don’t seem to have much spunk but are pale and dolefully cradling a sickly baby. Only the Conchita had a little life in her. She was pretty in her blue and pink cloak and standing on a dragon.

Breakfast in the morning was always scrambled eggs with toast and juice and coffee which is served with milk or water. If you are lucky the coffee is a strong, freshly made concentrate that you mix yourself with steamed milk or hot water. But often it was instant coffee to mix in.

Fruit was fabulous. Strawberries and blackberries again! And then a ton of bizarre fruit I was totally unfamiliar with. Fruteria Monserrat serves huge bowls of fruit with ice cream, yoghurt or whipped cream.

The city market was a sparkling expanse of white tile with a separate section for fruit, meat, flowers, prepared food. The vendors wore aprons and hair covers! I thought for a moment I was in Spain. It was the exact opposite of our muddy, dark and smelly market here in Granada.

There were a lot of shiny black boots on soldiers, guards and police. The place was crawling with uniformed men strolling about in groups of 4 or 5 or riding around on motorcycles.

It is Christmas Eve and there are long lines of Quechuan women and children waiting outside of stores. When they get to the front of the line, they get a ticket and then they can exchange it for a bag of candy and animal crackers and a doll (for a girl) or a truck for a boy. It seems to be the universal Christmas present. As we drove through Ecuador the next two weeks, we saw many boys with their shiny new plastic trucks and girls with new dolls. Some were still munching on their large personal bags of candy.

It was getting a little chilly, but it was cozy in Café Modelo. They had bins full of rolls and sweets but I had my new favorite food – humitas – slightly sweet little corn buns steamed in banana leaves. You eat them with coffee. The coffee at Modelo is sitting on the table in a bottle that looks like soy sauce. The waitress brings you a cup or milk or water and then you mix it up yourself. Two guitarists came in wearing suits and played beautiful ballads. No one clapped, but most people gave them money.