Last Saturday morning, all 18 of us, plus two directors, climbed on a bus and started out on the 5 hour journey to Intag, a region in the Northwestern province of Imbabura, Ecuador. By far, the best part of the long, bumpy, and windy bus ride was when the bus stopped at a seemingly random point on the road, and Fabian told us he had something to show us… As I, of course, was needing a pee break, I was happy to get off the bus and see what was there. After, I happily admitted it was probably the best pee I have had, ever. Maybe– that’s a tough call. But, this was my view:
Yes, we had stumbled upon Laguna Cuicocha, a crater lake named for its guinea pig shaped island in the middle — Guinea Pig Lake. I have yet to eat guinea pig, but more and more its reverence within the Andean culture comes to light. Perhaps soon?
Then, we continued on to Intag, delayed by a small tree sliding down a muddy hillside, holding our breath as we bumped around some treacherous curves (cliffs, no guard rail, no big deal), and finally arriving at a school, from which we began out ~1 hour trek to La Florida, our beautiful home for the following days.
Our host, an American ex pat who has lived in Ecuador for more than 30 years, greeted us with a wonderful lunch– all of it grown on site, or taken from the neighbors’ cows. To be short, the food was amazing: fresh, vegetable full, legumes, PANCAKES, fruit, coffee, etc. etc. I should have been more proactive with the picture taking of these beautiful meals, but instead I was too concentrated on consumption. In this case, I could not get over how delicious it was. Later that weekend, we got a tour of the garden, saw the coffee plants, the pineapple, bananas, tomate de arbol (tree tomato), zanahoria blanca (white carrot), lettuce, the chicken, the papayas. Literally, right in the backyard. I had been walking through the garden for the past few days, but had not noticed all of the food growing, due to the way other vegetation was mixed in with the fruits and veggies. For example, one day for lunch we had some delicious lentils, fried sweet plantains, rice, some sort of steamed greens (collards?), and delicious juice. I was a very happy camper. Also, after every meal we drank coffee, served with hot, fresh milk. After not having had milk (or at least not too much) for the past year, I couldn’t believe how amazing this milk tasted! Usually, I am completely satisfied with black coffee, but I had to admit to myself that this fresh from the cow business was pretty worth putting into my fresh from the tree coffee– especially as I was tempted to drink cup after cup at night.
Can I say it again? –the meals were amazing. And, I have found a picture of the lettuce, by far the most obvious crop, as it had to be protected from all the rain!
The rest of the first day, we had time to move into our accommodations, awesome cabins with no electricity, but candles and a sink! Also, beds with 4 layers of thick wool blankets. My kind of heaven. In the outdoors, we had a composting bamboo outhouse that was actually very pleasant, as outhouses go. At night, we played cards by candlelight (as romantic as it sounds…) and generally had an awesome time together, especially because I felt like I was right back at home at summer camp.
We had time to explore. Delve into these amazing forests, with trails winding all through them. After staring at the clouds forever, I had a hard time deciphering whether the clouds were coming down onto the green mountains, or were the mountains rising up in the clouds? It was a magical land, I was at once transported to the age of the dinosaurs (think giant ferns), Avatar (floating mountains), Nicaragua (humidity, heavy rains), and, probably, my dreams. It was absolute tranquility, to sit quietly and listen– no longer silent. Bird calls from every direction, the comforting white noise of a waterfall, murmurs of voices travelling through the green, the occasional dog bark. Once again, I felt the tranquility of life moving all around me, as I had the privilege to sit and observe it all. This time, I was not at a baptism surrounded by a huge family speaking Spanish, but it was another alternate reality in which I could partake.
Here is one small idea of the incredible world of the cloud forest:
I learned so very much about the forest, partly through instruction, and partly through observation. I learned how to differentiate between orchids and other trickster plants, which tree’s “blood” one can use for sunscreen, how to successfully hike for four hours in rubber boots, why some trees have “plantas epífitas” and others do not (moss, lichens, bromeliads), and so much more. One morning, we had a guided nature hike by a man named Roberto, and his 12 year old son, who lived just up the hill, and other times to explore on our own. Some friends and I were lucky enough to head down to the waterfall at dusk, around 6:30, and happened to spot an amazing red bird perched up in the trees, right next the waterfall. Yes, it was the Andeans cock of the rock (el gallito de la peña), the famous birds we had been warned about! Apparently, bird watchers from all over the world “flock” to the cloud forests of the Andes to see this funky looking guy. It was indeed an exciting moment to spot him– the birdwatching thrill!
Besides all the exploring, we had a few “charlas,” talks. In particular, two representatives of DECOIN, an anti-mining organization, came to relate to us their important work in campaigning against the mining companies that have threatened the Intag area for the past 20 years. Intag is rich in copper, populated by campesinos (farmers) and thus an attractive place for transnational mining companies to strike. However, Intag is also rich in biodiversity, water, people (pop. 15,000) who have lived off the land for the generations after generation. Although many would see these people as living in poverty, their reality is the opposite, living off the richness of the land. In addition to destroying the livelihood of these people, mining would lead to great deforestation and contamination of water.
One of the leaders of DECOIN referred to Ecuador as “el país como un pulmón,” the country as a lung, as it provides oxygen to the world with its immense forests. After having learned about extractive industries in class, it was very powerful to speak with local leaders of Intag, and the struggles they have had to face, death threats included. Metals certainly are a serious issue, as our reliance on technology continues…
In all, our 3 days in Intag flew by, were a wonderful respite from suburban lifestyle and daily classes, a much needed opportunity to take in the natural world and connect again with the amazing people on this journey. Quoting Kenny, our team cheerleader (self-proclaimed), “ECUADOR 20-12!!”
A quick update on the daily life, la vida cotidiana: I am back in Los Chillos for only one more week, 5 more days of Spanish class, and then we go off to the Oriente (Amazon region) before our next homestay in Quito begins! El tiempo pasa volando… time certainly does fly! I love my life here in the valley, but am definitely itching for a little more adventure, some big city life to come. Although, now I must take advantage of all the tranquility I have. This weekend, I may or may not be attending a soccer game, going to a dog show type thing, or to some amazing waterfalls nearby. As of now, I am unsure, but totally willing to go with flow and hang out with my awesome family in the short time we have left. Seriously, I can’t get over the fact that I’m gone in a week!
For now, love and peace of mind, what I try to wish to myself and others everyday!