Friday, November 17, 2017

Expedition Part 2

The group in front of Cerro Negro
Zoe and Griffin
A beautiful sunset in the mountains
Arriving in Pinan
A wild cow looks at Yuri as she sits watching the day break
Camped in the mountains
Sunset in the mountains
Whitley admiring the volcanos
Looking out over the community of Pinan
All smiles during a sunny day in the highlands

This post captures the last two weeks of our month-long expedition. After crossing Rio Cristopamba on our descent from the highlands down to the cloud forest, we entered the Intag valley on a long dusty road.

Luke, practicing crossing a swift moving river

Teaching team- Nora Spicer, Hannah Billian, Tupak Guatemal

Walking towards El Rosario, we reached a house with friends of the Dammer family gathered around outside. They gave us hot tea and rolls of fresh bread. We then hopped into the bed of a giant fruit truck that would take us up the mountains to the trailhead leading to Ned and Pattie’s homestead, where we would be making hand woven baskets. The truck felt rickety as we went over big bumps and around sharp turns. Some of us stood up and watched the fruit trees and the green mountains roll by. At one point, we stopped. We all began to get ready to get out, thinking it was our stop. All of a sudden delicious fruit called grenadilla (otherwise known as snot fruit), began to shower down on us over the walls of the truck. The driver had stopped at his farm and picked some for us. 

The energy of the people was different in the lowlands compared to the mountains. Like the truck driver, people were more outgoing and friendly towards us. Tupak said it was because the people match with the environment; mountain people are used to protecting themselves and shying away from the harsh cold and wind of the highlands, and the people of the lowlands are used to being open and comfortable in the warm air coming from the coast.

Hand knowledge

Making baskets at Ned and Pattie’s was wonderful. We stayed at their house for two days, learning from Pattie and her sister how to weave with the vines we used as materials. One of the days we sat together outside in the sunshine, laughing and telling stories as we wove, and the other day we worked in the rain, listening to each other read from Love In the Time of Cholera. Here is a poem Whitley wrote about our experience making baskets:

Basket weaving in the sun!
Oh wow! What fun!
Sweet lemon peels to munch on too!
Oh wow! What good food!
Weaving baskets short and tall!
Oh wow! Some sure are small!
It’s hard not to appreciate!
Oh wow! This sure is great! 

Hannah learning from Pattie's brother
Finishing touches

Pattie made delicious meals for us the entire time; we had homemade empanadas and bread rolls, as well as fresh avocados and mora juice (mora is a fruit very similar to a New England blackberry, but a little bigger and sweeter). A couple from Idaho was staying there, helping out around the homestead. They were very sweet and we all had made good friends with them by the time we were on our way.

Planting maize at Eduardo's

Eduardo shares with the group his philosophy on farming

When we finished our baskets, we trekked down to Pattie’s mom’s house, which is a sugar plantation and farm. There, we learned about the process of turning sugar cane into panella (which is sugar that hasn’t had the molasses taken out or any chemicals added to it). We helped harvest the cane with machetes, put it through a press that extracted the cane juice, and then boiled the liquid to evaporate all the water--leaving the the pure sugar as an end result. We ate spoonfuls and spoonfuls of the warm panella until our stomachs hurt. 

Sugar cane harvest
Next, we stayed at a coffee plantation called “Rio Lindo” in Cuellaje. We slept in a beautiful big house with four hammocks on the porch. Coffee trees grew in the shade of the forest all around, and the rushing river wrapped around the land. One day we went to the far side of the plantation down by the river, and gave fertilizer to all the coffee trees. A grove of huge alder trees grew in the forest there. They reminded me of the woods back in New Hampshire. Over the span of the two days we spent at the plantation, everyone drank lots and lots of coffee. It was from the trees of the plantation, and was some of the best everyone had ever tasted.

From Rio Lindo, we hopped on our bikes and began our last biking expedition that would span four days and eventually bring us to the beautiful river, Rio Mulaute. Our instructors were Hannah B., Nicole, and Nora. We rode between 40 to 70 kilometers a day.

Harry, showing off his river crossing skills!
Cloud forest fashion
At the end of one of these days, we reached Pactoloma, a small village at the top of a giant hill where we were invited to spend the night in their communal house. It was nighttime and a Sunday, so people were out on the streets cooking and playing music. There were tons of kids running around everywhere, and a soccer field in the middle of town with bright lights. The energy was so alive, it felt like a celebration. Some of us got a soccer game going. At first the kids were shy, but gradually, one by one, they started joining until the field was packed full. An audience gathered to watch. Next to the game, Tikko sat on the sidewalk with her camera, completely surrounded by a group of ten or fifteen children. They were so excited by the camera and by talking to us. Some of them memorized all of our names. They giggled and asked us questions, and Harry threw them up and in the air and carried them on his shoulders. They said he was the tallest person they had ever seen. Meanwhile on the soccer field, Griffin, our dedicated medic, sat hunched over a boy’s foot that had been injured during the game. Griffin had the medical kit out and was bandaging it all up, paying very close care.  

When it was time for dinner, we headed back to the communal house. A couple of the children followed us. Once in the space, they started checking out all of our things- our sleeping bags, headlamps, and water filters. A little girl helped serve dinner, and gave us her whole bag of little fruits called “ovos.”

The next day we rode through Mashpi nature reserve. We flew down through the wet forests, surrounded by thick mist that made our whole bodies wet. A canopy of giant leaves made it feel as if we were going through a tunnel. Birds sang all around, and water was everywhere. Here is an ode to that forest, written by Tikko:

The air here is dense,
weighed down by the
everpresent multitude of
The mist grey, the light greyer,
the plants greenest
of green, the mud
a creamy brown.
A tri-tone world.
The silence isn’t silent.
How could it be with so many voices?
Always moving, growing,
A cacophony of wet. 

After descending down out of the forest, the day began to turn long and the sun was already low in the sky. We still had many kilometers to go. Right when things were looking tough, something special happened. Nika wrote a passage about the turn of events that we experienced:

“October 30th was a beautiful example of the open-heartedness and generosity we have come across in so many forms on our expedition. We had been riding for a long time that day, reaching an intersection of the small back road we had been following with a large, busy highway. After a navigation update, we realized we still had many kilometers to go until camp, and Luke had been hit suddenly by a case of the throw-ups. As we rode single file along the shoulder of the highway, the deep pink sun was slipping below the horizon. We stopped in the first driveway we found, re-assessing our situation and realizing that maybe pushing on 10k more to camp in the dark on a dangerous highway, and with Luke so sick, wasn’t our safest bet. We called through the gate to the house we had stopped in front of, hoping for a response, and maybe, just maybe, that they would let us set-up our tents on their lawn for the night. Our teachers talked to the people who lived there as we waited outside with our bikes. They soon walked over and opened the gate, welcoming us inside. By sheer coincidence, they had a house on their property they weren’t renting out at the moment, and they urged us to please make ourselves at home for the night. We were pleasantly surprised by showers and a kitchen to cook in. As some of us cooked dinner, and others read and wrote, Jule, our master bike mechanic, fixed the bike chain of the little boy who lived where we were staying. While working on dinner, we were surprised more than once by the homeowners sharing plátanos, yucca, and fresh eggs and milk from their chickens and cows. We slept so soundly that night, bodies sore from biking, bellies full of delicious food, and hearts grateful for the incredible last minute hospitality of strangers-turned-friends. One of the dogs kept Luke company all night and he woke up feeling much better. In the morning, we bid our farewells, giving many thanks for not only a place to stay, but the inspiring kindness shared with us.”

A well ridden and muddied Krampus!
Our last day of biking we had a group solo, which is where us students travel the day on our own, and the instructors go a separate way. We rolled over hills, gradually dropping down towards Rio Mulaute. On our way, we stopped to get ice cream. Some of us were so pumped we started dancing. 

What students do while on cream stop!
We were met at the river by Thomas, Mathias, and Tupak, who would be leading the paddling expedition. Anjo, a friend of the Dammers, an avid paddler, and a bringer of joy and energy, would join us later. We played in the boats for a while so we could get to know them before running the rapids to come, then headed down the river. The different kinds of boats we paddled in were blow up canoes called “ganoes,” kayaks, a blow up cataraft called “Zel,” and a massive blow up cataraft called “The Yuka,” which had big wooden oars for steering, and when you rode on it, it felt like you were on a giant ship.

Girl power! Tikko, Zoe, and Whitley powering down the rapids on the Yuka
Charly- seeking out the perfect line down the rapids
The river was beautiful. The color of the water was a dark aqua blue. Rocky cliffs made up the walls with vines, moss, and roots hanging down. In some places there were shallow caves that had been carved out by the water, with bats and big spiders inside. Bright yellow and blue butterflies played on the shores. Flocks of startlingly white egrets flew above us, up and down the length of the river. Waterfalls coming from the forest up high fell from the cliffs. They made the perfect showers on hot days.

Hanging out at the river!

Playing on the river
On our first day, we came upon two fishermen in the center of the river. After Mathias talked to them and negotiated for a while, the two men handed over their bag full of fish, and it became clear we were buying everything they had caught to cook for dinner that night. We were very excited. Mathias and Hyim carried the fish into their ganoe with them, and proceeded to flip in the next rapid. We all looked for the missing bag of fish for a while but it was nowhere to be found and desperation started to hit. All of a sudden, there was a shout. We looked downstream and Zoe was standing waist deep in the water, the bag in her hand. There was a lot of cheering, and that night the cooks made delicious fried fish.

Hyim- enjoying the water

At one of our camps, we spent the day playing in the rapids and jumping off the rocks into the rushing water. There was a sandy beach and the sun was shining warm. Later in the day, Thomas taught us how to tie new knots. At night, we had a fire on the beach and sat around in a circle. The moon was glowing bright. Someone started drumming on a pot, and gradually everyone began to join in. There were clicks from spoons, claps and snaps, and thuds from hitting the sand. Harry contributed a little bit of freestyle rapping. Ever so slowly, the rhythm died down and we were left with the sound of the crackling fire and the water flowing over the rocks.

Taking the plunge!

On our last night of expedition, we stayed in a field covered in soft moss-like grass. Little tiny paths covered the ground, weaving and turning into the distance like windy backroads. On these paths were crowds of little ants, all carrying bits of leaves. Their walking made the leaves move back and forth, which from a certain angle, made them look like little people.

After it got dark, a deep yellow glow appeared from behind the horizon. Eventually the full moon showed itself, gently lighting up the entire sky. That night there was an energy of gratefulness and reflection among the group for the month that we had shared in the forests, the fields, the mountains, and on the rivers, meeting new people and experiencing new and beautiful things. Along with this energy of gratitude was one of excitement for returning back to Palugo, our home after a long journey.

Aisha and Mathias, carving their way down the river
New creatures to meet on the river
Griffin vs. Iguana

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Sneak Peak! Expedition Part 1

Bikes loaded, with everything we need for the coming weeks of expedition
After two weeks of preparations and getting used to life on the farm, we set off on our month long expedition with instructors Mathias, Nicole, Nora, and Tupak. Along the way, we were joined by guest instructors Hannah Billian and Thomas. This blog will cover the first half of our expedition, and the second half will come in another installment when we return from our big adventure. Enjoy!

Bryony leads the pack

We "Surly" love biking!
Nicole- powering up the endless hills
On our first day of expedition we followed an abandoned railroad, “La Ciclovia,” on bikes. We stopped for lunch at the head of a huge tunnel set within a mountain of rock. 

Tikko taught us a new song:

“Way up out there in the night
The melodies flow like water
The women sing of moons delight
And the men all sing of honey”

Tikko- bringer of song!
We sang this together in the mouth of the tunnel, our voices echoing off the walls. While we sang, we could feel a cold breeze coming from the other end of the tunnel.

Those first days of biking were spent riding on the sides of huge canyons, into passageways with ferns growing off the sides and through many difference pueblos (towns), towards the volcano Cayambe. Sometimes, we would pass through just as the children were going to or getting out of school, the streets filled with families.

The most beautiful trails

One day, while biking on the ridge of a mountain we hit what Mathias called, “The Grater.” Bushes covered with brutal thorns enveloped the trail. With no other available path to take, we were forced to head straight through the grabbing spikes. Screams and shouts were heard all along the ridge. When we all finally came out, we discovered that every one of us were covered in fairly deep scratches. That afternoon, it began to pour. It rained so hard that the ditches turned to streams in a matter of minutes. As the rain slowed, we came upon a small village. In the distance, an amplified voice called out, “Manderinas, Naranjas, Manderinas, Naranjas,” over and over again. We all became extremely excited, for we knew this voice was coming from inside a truck, full of mandarins and oranges to be sold. We raced towards the noise and intercepted the truck. We ate for a long time, standing over our bikes in the middle of the road, yellow-orange peels collecting all around our feet. The sweet citrus tasted wonderful after many miles of biking.


Studying on the river's edge
On our last day, we crossed the equator, entering the northern hemisphere. Pastures covered the mountains like quilt work and a strong wind made us sway on our bikes. We biked into the highlands, slowly creeping up the base of the great volcano Imbabura. It felt almost as if we were floating above the earth, we were up so high. Communities surrounded us, small gatherings of houses and fields sloping up the mountain. When we arrived at San Clemente, the community where Yuriana (one of our group members) and Tupak (one of our teachers) live, we were welcomed by a circle of families, all people who would be sharing their homes with us over the next couple days.

A much needed rest on the side of the road
It became obvious very quickly how kind and warm the people of San Clemente are. They welcomed all of us into their homes with ease and showed so much care for our well being, always wanting to talk and spend time with us. The women of the community make beautiful embroidery for their living, and one day they taught us how to make these beautiful stiches on shirts of our own. We spent hours in the grass together, embroidering little designs and flowers onto shirts. The women were so patient, and shared this beautiful work with us in a very open way. On our last night, our host parents gave us traditional clothing to dress in, and we all walked to Yuri’s house. There we had a night of dancing, music, and sweet cinnamon tea.

Yuriana, sharing her home of San Clemente with us

Admiring the locally crafted bracelets
Luke and Harry- lending a hand in San Clemente
Nica, Charly, and Tikko, helping in the community
The next day we hiked farther up the mountain until we were above the clouds, to a cabin at 3,500 meters (the highest we had been yet). It was beautiful up there, with golden grass all around. At night by the fireplace, out the window we could see the twinkling lights of the city of Ibarra down below us, and the shadow of Imbabura’s peak above us. We left before the sun rose that day and climbed to the summit of Imbabura. We swished through long grass called “paja” for hours. Hannah said it looked like a pastel painting, the way it shimmered and completely covered the earth. Soon we had climbed into the clouds, and new plants grew all around. There were strange ferns and colorful flowers. Jule called it an alien world. We clambered over rocks, deep ravines to either side of us, until we finally reached the top. We rested for awhile, completely surrounded by gray. All of a sudden, the sun broke through and blue sky and warmth returned for a split second, before the clouds surrounded us once again. The moment we came out of the clouds, on the way down the mountain was magical. We sat in the deep paja for a long time and looked at the sky, the mountains, and the cities all around.

Looking out over the countryside
Charly, summiting Imbabura
Bryony- showing off her ridge climbing skills
Harry- pushing through the challenges of the high altitude
The next morning, we loaded up our bikes and dropped down into the city of Ibarra. We slowly made our way through the maze of streets, then up into the western mountains on the other side of the inter-Andean valley. The single-track trail we rode the following day was on a ledge that wrapped around the middle of the mountains. A deep stream flowed along this ledge. As we rode, a steep mountain was directly on our right, and water was directly on our left. You would look ahead and sometimes see other group members tipping off their bikes to either side of the mountain, eventually being caught by a bed of prickers. Behind, you might look behind and see someone tipping into the stream! At the end of this trail we reached the Timbuyacu Hot Springs. We bathed in the warm water, splashing and laughing until dark- grateful to have reached the end of leg one of our expedition as a community.

Hannah, in a roadside conversation with the locals
Bike mechanic Jule- working on a tire puncture
Enjoying the hot springs!
From Timbuyacu, we packed up our big backpacks and climbed up into the mountains to begin our trek to the cloud forest on the western side. Our instructors were Nora, Hannah Billian, and Tupak. We walked up and up until the ground was once again covered in deep paja grass. On our second day of trekking, we rose before the sun, at 4:00 in the morning. As we climbed through the paja, lights from Ibarra and Otavalo sprinkled the earth down below. The stars were out and the strong mountain wind whipped around us. The light changed ever so slowly as the sun rose and the sky turned colors of pink and orange. We sat in the paja to watch. I looked around and saw that everyone’s faces were softly glowing. That day we walked 18 miles, mostly uphill, around the base of Cerro Negro, a looming dormant volcano. The sun set when camp came into view, making the paja shine golden and the clouds glow. During trekking, days often times turned long. Hours were spent walking through the paja in the blaring hot sun. We began to pass the time telling riddles, jokes, and stories to each other. Here is a story Jule made up and told to us:

“There is an old man who lives on a hill, and drinks sweet pink berry wine. He lives a life of contemplation and strives to work for the nine. The nine he strives to work for are the masters of the sky, the wind that whistles, the clouds above, and the birds that fly. The masters one day announced a fray that split the world into three, without balance, and life and death could no longer grow a tree. The universe went still, the flowers neither bloomed nor withered, the lion stood with nowhere to go, and the snake no longer slithered. At this time the old man sighed a sigh of disbelief, for in all his thoughts he had never thought that life would be in relief. As the old man gazed on the earth now bare, in the distance he saw the nine approaching through the air, without restriction or law. The nine were driven by a single force, a message for the man, a gift; a grant of three full seconds to craft a cunning plan. In the seconds granted to him, a decision was to be made: to continue existence as it was, or to force it all to fade. In the old man’s life of contemplation, his mind worked like a breeze, to produce an answer to the world in which it would begin to ease. With this decision and the three seconds up, existence disappeared, and out of nothing only something could be made or reared. A flash of light, quick and bright immediately made it two, from only nothing, to nothing and something, life could start anew. With a new beginning, an intention of light, using a paper and quill, he wrote the existence of all of life, and of the old man on the hill.”

Pinan- a small community in the highlands where we spent a night

The last day of trekking, descending from a calm, mystical lake called La Laguna de Piñan, we were walking along and all of a sudden the paja turned into huge trees with vines hanging and moss growing all around. Birds sang and butterflies and strange insects flew about. Brightly colored flowers sprouted from nooks and crannies in the rock, and ferns and leaves the size of small trees hung down over our heads. We had made it to the cloud forest. Thomas met us along the trail with poles that he had harvested for the river crossings which loomed ahead. We walked along the rushing streams with our giant walking sticks until we made it to a large river called the Rio Cristopamba. There, we helped one another cross with ropes and harnesses, just in case someone fell in and were to be swept down by the raging current. We used our poles as support, leaning on them in the direction of the current. Once everyone had crossed safely, we set off on a dusty road towards the small community of El Rosario, where we would make beautiful baskets.

La Laguna


Life in the paja 

Coming Home

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