Andrew: Mobile

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A visit to the villages around Chimborazo

We spent today driving around with Antonio. As the guys (Pike, Dunc and Sergio) have arrived a few of us had to ride in the back of the truck. This number increased and decreased as we picked up and dropped off locals in the different villages that we visited. As we went from town to town we were routinely offered to join in on lunch. At around 1:00 we were getting quite hungry so we decided to take the president of a community up on his offer. We all piled out of the truck and were led into a dark room. We were met by the elders of the village who had just sat down to eat. More chairs were brought in and we were seated. The meal started with the standard “Caldo” (broth usually with chicken). As the main course came, we all looked at each other hoping for a clue about what we were looking at. Roberto politely asked what we had been served. I heard the word, ”Cuy” and immediately recognized it. Named for the sound it makes when it is skewered. Guinea pig! It was actually quite tasty; kind of like chicken only a little more chewy (and of course much smaller).

We saw at least ten different fields that we could potentially repair or rebuild. All of them need a lot of work. Now we have to work out what is possible with the finances and time we have.

We arrived home after a ten hour day, tired dirty and full from our 3 lunches.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Guayaquil and Carnival

We spent our second and third night in Casa Condor trying to adjust to the new living conditions and the altitude (made some cool discoveries: 1) you can put your hand in boiling water and it doesn’t burn 2) you can essentially whisper and people can hear you up to 30 feet away). Each day we made the 45 min trip to the closest public phone in Riobamba. On the second of these trips we made contact with Jorge Gil, our customs broker in Guayaquil. He informed us that we would in fact receive authorization to ship, but not until 12:00 noon on the day of departure. Because it was Friday afternoon, we had no way of determining whether or not our shipment would leave before or after noon. We decided that we needed to make the trek to Guayaquil, the location of the customs office, in case the shipment was going to depart before noon and we had to do damage control. We arrived in the evening on Sunday. After a search of about 10 local hotels, many of which could be rented by the hour and had broken mirrors behind the beds with TVs tuned to pornography channels, we found a decent hotel for a bout five bucks a night. In the morning, we discerned that the shipment would leave at 6:00 pm that day and we were in the clear to receive our authorization to ship.

Since we had some time to kill before the project started, we decided to head to a beach town about 6 hours away called Montenita. It was at this point that things took a turn for the worse. We were walking through one of the shady parts of town (funnily enough the street that our hotel was on), and Gavin fell a little behind. As he was walking, he was approached by an elderly gentleman who pointed out that his bag was covered in what looked like a brown sludge or caramel. The man kindly offered him some napkins to clean himself off. As Gav was doing this, the man said that he was going to go and get him something more to clean off with. The next thing he knew, the man was gone and so was his day pack containing his passport, digital camera and many more personal effects. This set-back required a few more days in Guayaquil. The experience of trying to replace his passport gave us valuable insights into why things move so slowly in Ecuador. The main police station in Guayaquil still uses predominantly non-electrical type writers. The men using them have gnarled hands from years of hammering the keys to get them to make a legible mark. The Canadian embassy is open from 9:30 to 12:45. In the notary office we were confronted by people vying for position to beg the lawyer to sign their document.

In the end it was all sorted out and we caught a bus back to Riobamba. Half-way there, the bus was confronted with a large line of vehicles at a stand still. We were told that there was construction going on and the road would be closed of at least and hour and a half (this meant at least two and a half). About 2 hours into our wait, Gavin and I decided to go and try and find one of the vendors we had seen selling fried potatoes and plantains. As we got about 100 yards away from the bus we heard the roar of engines starting up. "Oh fuck, their leaving!" We start to run u the steep hill to try to catch our bus. As we get closer, we see that the bus is long gone. A truck driver who realizes what has happened yells something to us and gestures for us to climb on the running board. We jump on and he hits the accelerator in an attempt to catch our run-away transportation. Dust blinds us and chokes us as the trucks passes vehicles in an attempt to catch the bus. Luckily for us Roberto, after an extensive argument, has convinced the driver to stop despite his claims that he is already to far behind schedule. We caught up with the bus about 500 yards down the road and continued our journey to Riobamba.

The day after we arrived, Carnival began in all of Ecuador. This is essentially a national water fight. Anyone is fair game and there is no mercy. Unfortunately it doesn't stop with water; every second person has a can of spray foam, eggs, or flower. If you find yourself anywhere in Ecuador during this event you have about a 100% chance of getting hit at least once. People throw water balloons from second story buildings. Others hide in stores with buckets of water waiting for you to pass by. Others still sit in the beds of trucks and roam the streets looking for victims. Once, I saw a bus driver stop at a light and run out of his bus with a bucket of water to hit an unsuspecting woman crossing the street. Carnival in San Pablo begins with a traditional dance competition between all of the local communities. Roberto was selected as one of the judges for this very important event. The prize: a fat, healthy sheep. The people would do anything to try to attain this prestigious award, including offer Roberto a live chicken as an incentive.

The alcohol ran freely. At one point I was approached by a woman with a large plastic container who was serving a liquid out of coconut shells. I take my turn. It burns my throat but is very sweet. "Que es esto?" I ask. "Chicha" She replies with a toothless grin. I am truly glad I asked after taking my turn. Chicha is a drink made by the elderly women in the community by chewing the Yuca root and spitting the sugary saliva into a bucket. The liquid is then left outside to ferment, producing alcohol.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Arrival at Chimborazo

I awake suddenly as my face hits the seat in front of me. “Where the f$%& am I?” I try to collect myself. “Aqui! Necesitan Salir!” the conductor yells. I come to my senses. We have arrived in San Pablo, our destination. I jump up and make my way as quickly as possible, through the narrow isle filled with people, to the front of the bus. I jump off and find Roberto, Brenden and Gavin outside. The conductor runs to the back of the bus, opens the cargo hold and starts throwing our stuff onto the road. In my half daze, I am so consumed with anger about the treatment of my bag that I don´t stop to look around. The bus begins to move and the bus driver runs to try and catch it. I catch my breath and look around. We are in the middle of absolute nowhere...

After boarding the bus to Ipiales, the boarder town on the Colombian side of the fronteer between Colombia and Ecuador, things went pretty smoothly. The road was incredibly windy and sleep was impossible. Every time I dozed off, I was slammed one way or another into an armrest or my fat sweaty companion in the seat next to me. There was only one military search and they were quite nice. They kindly reminded Brenden that if we were stopped again, the next soldiers might not take too kindly to his army print hat.

We arrived in Otavalo about 24 hours after leaving Bogota. The city is incredibly colourful with an enormous market. We spent the next day exploring before making our way to Quito. From Quito, it was of to Chimborazo, our final destination (for the time being). We were told that the best place to get off the bus was San Pablo. The conductor told us that he would help tell us where to get off.

So here we are. On the side of the road in rural Ecuador with only our bags and dumb looks on our faces. No town in sight. Nothing. We decide that the best thing to do is walk up to a farm house and ask directions. We make our way to the closest one. As we approach it, we realize that it is actually a little hostel-hotel. We ask the man in the reception area for our location. It turns out we are no where near San Pablo. He tells us that we are about 15 kilometers outside of a major city in Chimborazo, Riobamba. We re-fuel on some rice and chicken (the appetizer was soup with a bowl of popcorn that you are supposed to put in the idea). After that we take our only option. Hitch it into Riobamba. We end up catching a small bus filled with indigenous people and their crops.

Once in Riobamba, we make some calls to try to find our contact. Our luck changes and we discover that he is in Riobamba, although no-one knows exactly where. We are assured that if we wait on this certain street corner that he will come and meet us. 1 hour later and after a torrential down-pour, we finally meet Antonio Inga. He is much younger than we expected. His spanish is very easy to understand as he speaks slowly and with confidence. We load all of our things into the back of a truck and head for the pace where we will spend the next month or so.

We drive for about 45 minutes, until we are in back in the rolling Andean mountains. We climb higher and higher. At this point it becomes apparent that the area to which we are heading has lost power. We have no idea where we are and can´t see anything. Antonio turns down a dirt road with a sign welcoming us to Casa Condor. Antonio starts honking to inform the care-takers that we have arrived. The headlights catch something off to the right. Antonio turns the truck to shed some light on what ever it is that we have seen. Directly in our headlights is a small Quichua woman fighting to gain control of a lamb that has apparently broken its pen. She is completing this effort in abject darkness but seems to be faring quite well. She finishes what see is doing and leads us to our room. She lights candles in every room and starts to boil some water. She gives us some tea bags to add to our cups. In the candle light, I see that the bag says Coca Mate. “Huh, my first taste of Coca tea.” It really wasn't that bad ... after two spoon fulls of sugar. This tea was intended to help us deal with altitude sickness. We find ourselves quite short of breath. Not too surprising as we have now ascended to 3840 meters above sea level.

We unpack our bags and get ready for sleep.

There is something so satisfying about having such a hard yet successful day and being able to definitively end it by blowing out the last candle.

This morning we awoke to the picture of Chimborazo in all its majesty right on our door step. We are now staying just at the foot of the mountain that can bring you the closest to the sun on earth! Unbelievable.

This morning Antonio took us to the school and introduced us to all of the grades. They were all so excited when they heard that we were going to provide them with soccer equipment.

Monday, February 5, 2007

After a few days of exploring Bogota, we decided to head out of the city to Roberto’s family farm, two hours north of Bogota. The drive was quite and experience. Roberto was very uneasy about driving at night so we left as early as possible. Unfortunately, due to the traffic, we found ourselves on winding mountain roads as the light started to fade. The roads were congested with buses and large trucks puking up clouds of smoke as they attempted to accelerate up the large inclines. The only way to pass these beasts was to take the risk of passing on a tight turn, usually carved out of the mountainside. At times, the cars and trucks attempted to pass in drones, with the last few subject to little or no sight of the road and a likely possibility of encountering large fast moving opposition. The road through the local town, Ubaté, town was a bit flatter. By this time, an oily dark had fallen and visibility was almost zero. This was compounded by a fog the left the road itself a figment of our imagination. Most of the time, the only way we knew that the road was beneath us was because the pot holes could not be so big in the Fields that skirted the area. At this point, rain drops the size of grapes began to fall, further impeding our progress. All the time, bicyclers came out of nowhere silhouetted in our headlights.

We arrived at the farm, safe and sound. The house itself is an old converted Spanish fort that sits on the edge of a mountainside overlooking the fields below. The interior is quite spectacular, with tile floors and plaster walls. The rooms desired to be a little bit cozier are layered with thick rugs, or straw mats. We spent the days exploring the country side as well as Ubaté. One of the highlights was seeing the 1000 kilo bull that they imported from Canada for breading. In the evenings, we chilled and read at the hearth of a large fire.

Today we are heading to Ecuador! The bus to the boarder alone will take about 22 hours. Although we are making our way through some territory that is controlled by the FARC (Colombian guerillas), we have been assured that the bus line that we have chosen has paid their “Vaccines” to assure safe passage.