Ecuador a Perú

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Karl and I are on our way. Turns out you CAN bring lighters as a carry-on item.

JUNE 10, 2013– Leaving on a jet plane

Karl and I are on our way to Ecuador, just sitting in the airport and writing letters to other traveling friends. Fun fact: Turns out you CAN bring lighters as carry-on items!

Hasta agusto, Minnesota!

JUNE 11– We’ve finally arrived in Quito

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 This is the view from the roof deck at Hostal Marsella. So awesome! It’s in the old part of town, right in the middle of the vivacious city of Quito, Ecuador.

We woke up on the Quito airport floor with our sleeping bags sprawled out. Nobody seemed to mind; no strange looks. I wonder what they would’ve thought if we had set up our tent?

On the plane, last night, we sat next to a classy old lady from Louisiana with a big broad-rimmed sun hat and long brown hair who just liked to giggle. Her cheeks were always red. Her cat, Beth, was in a little kennel stuffed under the seat on its way to live in Quito with her U.S. military-retired husband. He survived malaria (without treatment) in Vietnam. That’s hardcore! She, on the other hand, still lives in Louisiana and commutes to see her husband at their luxurious Spanish-styled one-floor house in the countryside north of Quito. She showed me a lot of pictures of the cows outside her kitchen window which seemed to make her laugh. Then I’d laugh, too.

Amazingly so (or maybe I shouldn’t be shocked), Karl and I met an older Widji guy while waiting in line at customs. Widji is an intense and insanely fun YMCA Camp in northern Minnesota that takes high school aged kids on long wilderness camping trips over the summer. I’ve spent a lot of my life there and I guess the love for adventure never leaves the bloodstream after Widji. He had some gig teaching high school students in the Galapagos, de-rooting invasive plant species (and pretending not to notice the underage partying).

Meeting people while traveling is one of my favorite things. It’s when the best storytelling comes out. The bubbly Louisiana woman and the bearded, smelly Widji guy are just the beginning. Hmm, I wonder why I’m a journalism major? 

Getting from the airport to our hostel wasn’t easy: a little stressful, unpredictable, but also hilarious. There we were on a bus going into the city of Quito with two body-sized, stiff backpacks on our laps cramming us into the seat.  “Where’d you go, Karl? I can’t see you over my pack.” It was exciting though, coming into the city, driving over steep ravines, watching smaller vehicles get taken over by this aggressive bus driver. The buses have manual transmissions unlike those in Duluth.

After an hour ride, we got dropped off in the city at a bus station. I wondered around asking people how to get to the next stop, but just got more confused. Their Spanish is sooo quiet here, especially amid the bustling buses and honking horns. They must have incredible hearing!

Funny enough, I was asking them how to get to Río Coca (a street), but that was the name of the station we were at. I didn’t know this. So, they were like, “You crazy lady, you’re already here. I don’t understand your question?” Luckily Karl had my back and caught my mistake.

Standing on the city bus with big packs, people staring and falling on top of us with the momentum of the turning and stopping bus was awkward, and with that, hilarious. We got off too early because we didn’t exactly know when our stop was and so walked the sidewalk the rest of the two miles.

There is so much going on in this city! The buildings are glued together and rarely reach over six stories. There’re all sorts of restaurants with fresh fruit or bread just sitting out front. Street vendors hopping on and off buses trying to sell caramels or soccer apparel. The sidewalks are walking race tracks. The buses are unforgiving to passengers and other vehicles alike. And school children in uniforms seem to appear everywhere.

Our hostel is lovely and quiet for the most part. The small family that runs it lives down stairs and only speaks Spanish. We heard them yelling and screaming at the soccer game on TV today … I’m pretty sure all of the 10 rooms heard them. ha We have our own room! Right when we got there, we split a beer (very cheap) and spilled our bags onto the floor. It seems like we’re always reorganizing.

Mom, you’ll be psyched to know they have a little hound dog with floppy ears and a love for belly rubbin’. His name is “Bro,” but he doesn’t seem like a lacrosse player. I’ll get a pic with him sometime.

Here are the pictures we took on the roof today and tonight:

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JUNE 12 — A snapshot from our day out in Quito

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We got out hairs did. Karl kept his patillas (sideburns) … you can’t just quit a beard cold turkey.

More on our day tomorrow or the next day. We leave Quito and head to a small village called Chontal. Then, the next day, we arrive at the forest conservation place in the Cotacachi cloud forest, La Reserva Los Cedros.

JUNE 15 — More on Quito, but reporting from the cloud forest!

Today we’re in the cloud forest at the top of a mountain about an hour-and-a-half hike from the end of the nearest dirt road. I think I saw Tarzan swinging from a vine! Ah-ah-ha…ah-ah-ah! No sign of Jane, though.

There’s a lot to tell about this place, so be excited to hear more. But, first I want to catch up on our time in Quito.

On June 12, Karl and I walked around the Old Town of Quito, a neighborhood right in the middle of the lengthy city. It’s old, but it’s definitely not past its prime … like Chuck Norris. I’m not trying to say Quito is as badass as Norris. Rather, it’s invincible to the wearing of time and still kicking in its 479th year of life. Technically, it’s even older than that. Before the Spaniards came, it was an Indian settlement.

An even better comparison for the city would be a coral reef. The people are like the hundreds of thousands of fish living in one giant living organism and each group has its own domain. My idea of a coral reef is what you see in Finding Nemo. The bus driving fish remind me of the manta ray teacher in the movie who gives the kids a ride on his back … although not as friendly. The street vendors are all like the one crazy yellow fish in the tank who is obsessed with bubbles and only knows one word, “Bubbles!” – or in the vendors’ cases, “Naranjas y uvas!” (oranges and grapes).  IMG_0157 IMG_0158 IMG_0186 IMG_0188 IMG_0190 IMG_0193

There are the groups of loud and giggly school children fish here and there, the slicked-hair professional fish in-and-out of the buildings (fish with hair?), the kissing fish in the parks and on the benches, the fashionable fish in their haircutting salons with loud American pop music and then those hiding in dark tunnels or holes in the ground (not all of which are eels).

We toured the old stone basilica to see the colonial architecture and get a tower view of the city. It was a fairly touristy place, but none of the tourists spoke English – all Spanish. Before I came to Ecuador I was worried it’d be all Americanized and everybody would know English, but the opposite is true. You either have to be really good at Charades or be willing to make a fool out of yourself by speaking the Spanish you learned from a textbook for eight years. It’s a lot of fun.

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After the Basilica, we went on a search for rain boots to use during our time in the rainforest and for any type of petroleum for our small stove that’ll eat whatever it can get. The boots were in a small hardware store not far from the basilica, but there was no petroleum there. So, the salesguy sent us wandering five blocks down the street to a gas station. Apparently, it’s illegal to fill up small bottles with gas … who woulda known?

The trek wasn’t a complete fail, though, because we found a fun café and stumbled upon a hair salon.

The small café was underground right on the street and turned out to be a regular afterschool hangout for a musical group of school kids.  I think they were like 12 and already knew how to harmonize with the guitar and each other. We turned off the TV there to listen to them just goof around with their sound.IMG_0130

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Running into the hair salon was just our luck. We were joking about getting foreign haircuts and then we walked right into our opportunity. Plus, haircuts are cheap! Three dollars! I got a trim and Karl got a straight-razor shave with left over Elvis-sized side burns.IMG_0148

Unfortunately, I never did get a picture with Bro, the hostel’s hound dog. Though I could’ve gotten a few different-angled artsy shots of his poop. A few pieces of hardened, brown tootsie rolls were left where he laid them on the roof deck. One had a shoe print in it.

The roof deck is where everybody hangs out, literally – there’re two hammocks to hang in. We have two Canadian friends, Tom and Kim, who we meet there at night to drink Ecuador’s beer, Pilsner, and enjoy the city nightglow. They’re from four hours north of Toronto. Kim just graduated college and Tom is still finishing his architecture degree. They both love hockey and tattoos. Together, I’d bet we’re the best hockey players in Ecuador. Hopefully we’ll run into them again on our way to Perú.

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Hiroko is our other friend. She’s from Japan and travels alone. I guess she really didn’t enjoy her job as an elementary school secretary, so she saved up money and decided to globe trot. She learned English in Australia and New Zealand, and because of this, has a cool Australian-Japanese English accent. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know Spanish or – maybe unfortunately, depending on how you look at it – what she’s doing. She travels around for the diverse experience, but doesn’t seem to have an end point. She seems happy. Like the older Louisiana woman on the plane, Hiroko had a giggle box inside of her.

Along with Hiroko, the Louisiana woman seemed a little lost, like in a dream world. If you think about it, it’s curious she got a kick out of the cows that live in her retired-foreigners’ community – forget that cows can be funny with their cud chewin’, dragging udders and all. Moooo-re on the point is that it’s the whole situation that’s funny. The lady thinks the cows are out of place, but it’s really her presence that’s odd. The mountain on which she lives is primarily a campesino (peasant farming) community and has been since long before her grandparents were even in diapers. Maybe the community needed money and agreed to a gated community full of rich, foreign, elderly people – and who can blame her and her husband for moving to a beautiful, friendly and remote area where they can double their spending power.

From our conversation on the plane, however, it seems she only experiences the mountain from her window and has nothing to do with improving or even becoming a member of the campesino community. Maybe the campesinos don’t want her to invade any more than she already is, but still, her lifestyle seems irresponsible. Where’s Mister Rogers when you need a neighborhood united?

As Karl and I’ve been traveling, more and more we hear of campesinos struggling and grasping onto desperate ways to make money. Sure makes for some contradictory – and yes, backwardly funny – scenarios. 

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Here we are, tourists/gringos and intruders, ourselves, supporting the Ecuadorian economy and lying in a city park. It’s a good time!

CHONTAL — An adventure off the map. / We’re on our way to La  Reserva Los Cedros!

Welcome back. It’s been a long while since I last blogged, but that’s because my hand was violently ripped off by a puma and it’s too tiring to type with just one. Some people can do it, but not me.

Well, we finally found the wild kitty cat that done it and Karl bravely stuck his arm down its throat and pulled out my un-digested hand. Luckily, my fingernail caught on some of the textured flesh inside its throat and saved my hand from being sucked into its stomach acid.

Here’s a puma paw print Karl shot with his phone:

puma printAnyway, now my hand is stitched back on and properly functioning. So, besides the painful puma story, here’re a few more you should update yourself with:

On June 13, we left the big city of Quito and headed northwest on a bus to a very small pueblo called Chontal. There’re maybe 20 two-story buildings all along the dirt road. Picture a town from the Old West surrounded by mountains of dark green jungle, and, towards the edge, there’s a big ole grass, outdoor soccer field. The goals are rusty and don’t have nets, but that’s only because they’ve been used so hard and so frequently.

Coming to a place like this was refreshing. The nearby, clear-water, mountain river felt refreshing (el Río Chontal). The friendliness of the aldeanos (villagers) was so welcoming. The new experience of being in such a heart-glowing and simple place was mind-opening. 

Right after getting off the bus, an older man sitting on a chair in his doorway pointed us to the hostel. Being a small, small town, all he had to do was raise his arm, as it was right across the street – an old, dark brown, wooden building with a street-facing balcony on top. We dropped off our bags and walked the block of dirt road out of town to a swinging bridge that crosses the big Guayabamba River. A few planks were missing, but for the most part, it was safe – at least, safe enough for a dude on his dirt bike to cross. Rock on, man!IMG_0208 IMG_0212 IMG_0218 IMG_0224 IMG_0228 IMG_0230 IMG_0244 IMG_0247 IMG_0253 IMG_0264IMG_0255

When we got back to town it was dark, but the soccer field was alive. Older brothers and their baby sisters along with a few parents were playing pick-up fútbol. They were all very good! Even more impressive, they were running in their bulky jungle rain boots. The scene was similar to the outdoor hockey atmosphere in Duluth. Anybody can play. It’s all just a bunch of fun and the regulars come back every night. Some really heart-warming stuff.

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There really is just something about the kids here. They stick together, whether that means to each other or their family. Aaaand, they’re super cute – all of them! On the three-hour bus from Quito to Chontal, country kids in their uniforms would get on-and-off in groups on their way home from school. Since there were few open seats, they just held on to each other in the aisle and sucked on lollipops.

One big, brown-eyed girl’s baby brother had fallen asleep with his face smudged into the side of a seat. When their stop came along, he wouldn’t wake up. So, she and her friend helped him zombie-walk off the bus – all the while, laughing. It was pretty hilarious!

The kids are almost always laughing, like most kids do. But, more than that, they play an important role in the community and raising each other. Actually, everybody here does. It seems like the village of Chontal is more like a big family.

After the soccer game ended, most of the kids walked home together. A couple of parents and their kids unloaded the bananas from a truck into a store. Some older boys hung out in the street after the game and taught some younglings how to ride their dirt bikes (everybody travels by dirt bike here). The six little boys crammed onto two bikes and disappeared down the road for a couple minutes at a time – the driver, barely tall enough to catch the bike from falling on slow turns.

 This type of community/family bond I’ve been talking about can most certainly be found in Duluth, but is not nearly as concentrated or common. I’ve met plenty of Duluth kids who’ve never helped with dishes – kids who’ve never climbed the tree in their backyard because they’ve only beat their video game five times and compulsively want to do it a sixth. There’re families who rarely eat together; parents who’re so glued to their iPhones, they haven’t even realized that their kid has never climbed the tree out back.  I don’t think it’s possible to find one of these families here. They don’t have enough money to waste on iPhones. Their kids have to climb the trees out back in order to harvest lemons or bananas for lunch. It’s fun! And, no kid would choose to play soccer with a remote control, staring at a TV screen versus slipping on their rain boots and kicking around a ball in real life.

 Over-stimulation isn’t a problem here. 

LA RESERVA LOS CEDROS – A biological conservation volunteer organization located in the cloud forest of Cotacachi

Here’s the link to the official website: http://reservaloscedros.org/

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A panoramic view of the reserve campus from a hammock on the porch. Click on it to see better.

The place will sound like a “funny farm” when I describe it to you, and I guess it kind of is, but there’s reason for the backwards lifestyle and incongruous mix of people as you will see.

 Even before we reached the place, things started to get a little funny.

 It started in Chontal, of course. We were eating a breakfast of fried yucca (a fantastic edible root) and coffee at a small restaurant inside a woman’s home. We were waiting for the owner of the reserve, José, to return to town from a distant trip. When I told the restaurant owner, Marta – an older, pleasantly plump woman running around in an apron – we were waiting to catch a ride with José up into the mountains to Los Cedros, she unexpectedly sprinted up the stairs and out the door. I was a little confused, but by then it was normal for people to react in unusual ways when I spoke Spanish. So, I wasn’t too worried.

It turns out she went next door to use a phone to call José. Apparently, he had sent us an email the night before telling us to wait another day because his trip was taking longer than expected. We didn’t know. There was no internet. So, Marta rounded up a truck for us to ride halfway to the reserve without José.

It’s really not hard to find a truck driver around Chontal. The few truck drivers around sit on the sidewalk or in chairs in their front doors during the day just waiting for someone to become stranded so they can give them a ride. 

A guy named Darwin Cumba (with a few names in between) drove us up to the trail to the reserve. We followed a bouldery, clear water river flowing in the opposite direction and passed by a small school where a little boy decided to pull his pants down and pee in the middle of the yard. Throughout the drive, there were many small banana and mandarin farms settled into the hillside. Farmers watched as we went by and Darwin greeted them with his horn. All in all, the ride was 30 minutes and a great introduction to the beautiful countryside.


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 The road ended at a bridge that crossed the river. A bright-eyed, 43-year-old man named Martín met us with a mule on the other side. He threw us a potato sack to put one of our packs in while he readied the other to tie onto the mule. The walk was a tiring two hours, switch backing on a muddy path through the jungle. But, along the way, we discovered Martín is the nicest Ecuadorian we’ve met so far. He talked with us about the local environmental problems caused by the lumber and agricultural industries, the study he helped with on the rare brazos largos (brown-headed spider monkeys) within the reserve, his family that lives half a day away in Ibarra and, of course, Minnesota. Unlike many of the people we’ve met, he was patient with my Spanish, gentle with his own words and, actually, genuinely curious about us.

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Shortly before reaching the campus of the reserve, we were descending a hill when he pointed out two green, red-breasted birds sharing a small branch above us. He seemed delighted to be able to show them to us. The mule kept walking, but we stayed there and watched as the birds hopped from branch to branch.

 In a later, light-hearted conversation while cooking dinner, Martín, Solma (the cook) and I were deciding what animals we’d be in another lifetime. Solma decided she’d like to be able to run for miles, and so, chose a horse. As for me, I’d like to be a cuddly, blueberry-eating black bear. Can you picture me a little hairier and rounder on the sides? But, what Martín chose fits him so perfectly: a bird. I forget which kind because it’s hard to remember in Spanish, but it was some type of colorful jungle bird – a whistling, happy, always-up-to-something, flying-through-the-jungle, fruit-devouring and insect-gulping little bird. It made total sense. 

IMG_0280Solma (left), her one-year-old daughter Darling and Martín on the porch

 The birds on the way up were our first wildlife experience at the reserve. Later, on the same trail, we’d see a group of white-faced capuchin monkeys far off in the trees and many puma tracks (see photo from last post), but no puma.

 Besides these, there were some pretty cool animals there! Toucans with unbelievably long beaks. Black snakes that sunbath on the trails. Small deer with backwards-aiming short horns that allow them to move swiftly through the woods and not have leafy shish kabobs for antlers. Distant howler monkeys that could be heard but not seen. A large rodent that looks like an ant-eater minus the long snout– we think it’s something like a goutis. And, about 900 different species of moths that party like college freshmen around the light bulbs at night. Along with the many varieties of moths, there are flocks of bird species here. Most can be seen if you just keep your head cocked back and eyes squinted at the treetops. I can’t name each one off, but there are of course big and small, colors from black to red to green and long-tails among short-tails; each are a little different. What they all seem to have in common, though, is their amazing ability to fly through the thick jungle with ease. It’s like watching Luke Skywalker in the X-Wing avoiding all of Darth Vader’s pesky little fighters – seemingly effortless.  However, just like some of Skywalker’s wingmen, I guess they’re not always so smooth because just a week before we arrived, Martín rescued a small bird tangled in vines. It died a few days later. 

The rescued bird that died. Photo by Liz Maleham

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And now for the other side of the biological spectrum: plants. Although I’m more of an animal person than plant person, all the greenery astounded me. I’ve never seen so much of the color green! However, because I am more of an animal person, I can’t say I remember the names of the plants very well. If only they had human names. Then, I could make your brain explode with my plant identity abilities. “This tall tree with the jagged bark you see here is Harold, but the purple flower growing out of its side is Cathy.”

Most of the time it was hard to identify plants anyway because of how dense the forest is. It was easy to see flowers because they’re a color besides green, but everything just blended in unless I was more intentional with my focusing.

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I know right now you might still be wondering how this place is a funny farm, and that’s because you only know one of the characters, Martín, and he doesn’t seem all that odd. On the contrary, he is in fact an uncommon person. Most of the campesinos (country folk) run farms, log, or own either a small restaurant or store in town. He, however, raises his family off of clearing trails in a 17,000 acre forest that just sits there, hardly touched, so that animals and plants can live safely and the water can remain as clear and as clean as the mountain air.  I think he grows some crops of his own in the nearby pueblo, Magdalena, but not that’s not his living.

Along with Martín, Fausto clears the trails and maintains the campus. He is much more shy but has a similar gentle spirit. Fausto lives with his wife, Patricia, and young daughter on a farm a few miles away from the reserve. We bought a bundle of mandarin oranges from him.

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Fausto

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Solma is the other hired hand and she does the cooking and cleaning. She is one of the oldest (or maybe the oldest) in a family of 15 and always wears a smile. He daughter, Darling, roams around in her baby walker either dancing to music or trying the eat the dog food while her mom dices garlic to make garlic bread or rolls and twists bread dough into fingers to make rosquillas (doughnuts).

Solma pushing Darling on the swingSolma pushing Darling in a swing.

When Solma’s goes back to her house on the weekends, José is the lead chef and everyone helps in the kitchen. We eat a lot of different beans on rice for lunch and dinner and have freshly made bread with eggs for breakfast.  It’s strictly vegetarian. There’s no refrigerator around, and therefore, no meat.

Then there were the gringos. Karl, of course, a handsome, raggedy clothed wanna-be cowboy who is crazy about mechanics and only eats vegetarians, let alone is one. Your narrator, a Spanish-stuttering, listening and writing, camping fanatic – possibly a distant relative of the black bear. Liz, a 24-year-old, world-traveled, hard working, not quite, but almost proper British lady. She’s now in New Zealand scuba diving for a year or two. Josh and Katie, a college-aged, clean and fit, green couple from the beach somewhere outside of L.A. Marga, a wild and hilarious middle-aged, single-mom Australian who originally came to Latin America to learn to salsa dance. And, Marga’s recently made friend, Daniel, a 28-year-old horse-riding native Ecuadorian who deeply regrets growing up in Las Vegas, tucks his pants into his equestrian riding boots and wears low cut V’s.

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José was the least gringo of us all, but still quite obviously a gringo. A few inches over 6 feet, he hobbles around in his older age and lets his long white hair hang in a ponytail down his back. I guess his real name is Joey, but Spanish speakers pronounce J’s as H’s, creating “Hoey,” or more often “Ho.” So, he changed to José. 

He really is an interesting guy. If he’s not raging on about political and governmental corruption in Ecuador or the US, he’s talking out loud about his hippy days in the 60s when he and his friends were rebelling against the Vietnam War and shutting down banks, experimenting with psychedelics on the California beach as a teenager (his favorite, peyote) deserting the US when he was about 20 to live in Mexico because the police were arresting his protesting friends and then planting marijuana on them, the late nights socializing with customers at his restaurant and bar in the Dominican Republic and fraternizing with women. He spends a lot of the day sitting at the dining table, smoking rolled cigarette after cigarette, devotedly listening to political radio. He’s probably the most informed person I know, and also, the most opinionated.

José listening to the radio

So, how did such a sociable and politically active dude end up at the top of a mountain far away from any large area of civilization? He got so fed up with governments and their fraud, power and deception that he took off for the woods to live more on his own. After the Dominican Republic he moved to the countryside of Colombia where he fell in love with the friendly people. Sadly enough, the government came into the town he was living and kicked all the foreigners out because of the increasing disturbance of the guerilla group there (the FARC). So, he moved to Chontal and decided to use ecotourism as a means to preserve some jungle. He bought a land where the reserve is now, built the campus and trails and worked with other environmentally friendly organizations to legalize the reserve.

Now he is fighting off mining companies and illegal loggers that are squatting on his land. Apparently the police in Ecuador are almost useless. They can’t do anything against the squatters. He has to bring the military in to solve the problem, but it’s an endless fight. As for the mining problem, he’s teaming up with Indians and other environmental groups to create a well-rounded political organization to protect his land and other land against the mining companies and the government, or rather, the president, Rafael Correa, who is changing the constitution so that he can steal people’s land. He likes the large flow of money produced by mining and so has dramatically increased mining throughout the country. The most hindering obstacle for José and his group is that people don’t have land titles. They just have the land and always have, dating back to their grandparents and beyond. That’s the way it is, but the mining companies are using the lack of titles to their advantage. It’s not fair and just not right.

So, that’s more of the behind scene. As for our role in the reserve, we were volunteers who helped maintain the trails.

We’d wake up for breakfast at 7:30 and then get our mud boots on for half a day’s work of clearing the leaves off of trails or removing fallen trees with Fausto and Martín leading the way with machetes. There are miles upon miles of trails that lead to the two small rivers, landscape observation spots, or who knows where. It’s important to keep the trails clear not only because the leaves quickly pile up, but because it’s crucial for animal observation. The animals can hear you coming when you’re walking on crunchy leaves. It was hard work walking up and down the steep trails and doing the labor, but there was usually always a river to cool off in and lunch ready when we were done.

IMG_0497Making a bridge with a cut up cedar log. The red wood is very nice for building furniture also. The name of the reserve, Los Cedros, is named after these cedar trees. IMG_0501IMG_0503IMG_0471IMG_0477 IMG_0468

One day we constructed a dam to make a swimming pool deeper.

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Photo by Liz MalehamPhoto by Liz Maleham

The rest of the day, we’d hang out in the hammocks, play with one of the three pets (two dogs, Cachorra and Picalina, and a very friendly cat, Serafina), go for personal hikes, read, get José going on some topic, or play cards. And, we were always eating bananas picked from the reserve’s banana grove.

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Photo by Liz MalehamPhoto by Liz Maleham

Serafina Photo taken by Liz MalehamSerafina the cat. Photo by Liz Maleham

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Photo by Liz MalehamPhoto by Liz Maleham

Bridge across a river

The banana storage room Photo by Liz Maleham

The banana storage room
Photo by Liz Maleham

MalehamThe dining room with ping pong Photo taken by Liz MalehamThe dining table and ping pong table. Photo by Liz Maleham.

The banana grove is where all the used-water at the reserve gets filtered through on its way back down the mountain. José told us to leave the sink going because it all ends up at the bottom of the mountain anway and it keeps the water from getting old in the pipes. The tap water comes from a long pipe that takes water out of one of the rivers higher up on the mountain. It’s cold, clean and so freshly delicious to drink. We haven’t been to a place where we can drink straight from the tap since. It’s unbelievable how lucky we are in Duluth to have such awesome water.

Not only does the reserve use the river for drinking, but for washing clothes in a well and for electricity. There’s a hydroelectric generator set up downstream one of the tall waterfalls. The long pipe that stretches from well above the waterfall to the generator utilizes the power of the gravity of the falling water to drive the generator. It’s pretty simple and works well, but shorts out when lightning strikes the ground. I guess this problematic disturbance has happened more than a few times, frying the generator’s converter.

Here we are washing our moldy, sweaty and muddy clothes in the washing well.

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Overall we were at the reserve for two weeks. At times it was boring, especially when Martín, Fausto and Solma weren’t there. We could do more work when they were around. During the duller times we got a lot of resting done, which was good because I had a bad cold and our bodies were still adjusting to the heavy bean intake … if you know what I mean. Most of the time it was very enjoyable, walking around in the beautiful and unfamiliar forest, sharing stories with the random and unusual group of people and learning to cook the Ecuadorian way, using beans in every culinary way possible. We’ll miss the slow and simple lifestyle of waking up and working, cooking, and then having time to just think.

What we’ll miss the most, though, is Martín. Now he’s off in the Amazon forest temporarily working for an oil company to make more money for his family. He’s very nostalgic and conflicted about the job. To us, he embodied the cloud forest of the reserve and we grew to both deeply respect him and the forest. To connect with a foreign place or a person from a different culture and language is transcending and takes your love for the world to a greater level. It’s easy to say, “Oh, other people are just like us. We’re all the same more or less deep down.” But to understand that through real life experience is beautiful. I now understand I’m not just a US citizen, but also a world citizen.

We will miss the reserve, but what it has given us will stay with us.

Here’s a link to a movie a couple of student journalists made about the reserve while we were there: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P9rrTe9rp0

It’s in Spanish, but the visuals are good and it stars Karl and me.

Now onto the rest of our travels.

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