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Today is my last day in Ecuador.

…Wait, ¿¿¿Qué???  How did that happen?!  While I have been soaking up sun and wandering markets and letting español plant itself surely in my brain, four and a half months passed.  Right under my nose.  Like my constant ache for home and simultaneous love for this country could continue forever, side by side confounding and delighting me.  I want to cry when I think of how joyous it will be to reunite with my family and friends, and I want to cry when I think of how much I will miss the places and people I´ve known here.  I already miss many of them, more than I imagined was possible.  I will miss being able to get on or off an interprovincial bus at any point along the highway (forget bus stations!), and the whirl of raucous music bumping in time with the curves and jolts in the journey.  I will miss the steep scent of eucalyptus that cuts through the Panamerican highway smog and inundates me, welcoming me back to the Sierra.  The rows of roasting chickens in windows along every street, and the way they stealthily pique my appetite even when out of sight.  The sight of indigenous women in ponchos and felt hats, colorful and daring amidst the hubbub of modern Quito.  A warm sea.  One-dollar golden coins jingling in my pockets.  Machetes and banana trees and being told I´m linda by random passerby.

I will miss making fleeting decisions and acting them without needing to consult anyone.  What I look forward to, though, is having people I love and trust to consult, when needed.  I look forward to reliable hot showers and free, clean public bathrooms.  To not worrying about only having $20 bills that no one can break.  To exercising my precise usage of the English language, and to fresh greens and salads at my disposal.  I look forward to having a cell phone and a computer, and to spinning my gorgeous nieces until we´re dizzy and giggling.  I can´t wait to show you more photographs and try to express all that I´ve been unable to in writing.  It will be good.  It will be, and has been, all very good.

All this time to myself has given me an opportunity to brainstorm– probably far too much– about what to Do With My Life.  The world works in myriad, mysterious, marvelous ways, and I can´t say that I have a much firmer idea about how to continue than when I arrived here.  I might still need to study more (in Academia) to satisfy my tenacious search for understanding.  I will certainly be practicing more agriculture and participating in local food movements– what I see as solutions to un montón de problemas that we face.  No matter what, the fact that I often catch myself thinking in Spanish will serve some good.  De ley voy a seguir con todo que me gusta, y de ley seguir encontrando lo bueno más y más cada año.

I named this blog from a song I wrote late last year: ¨I´m the shape of milk pouring, steady, steady…¨  Funny, now, that the shape of milk has shaped my many paths during my stay here in Ecuador.  Fresh milk first flowed into my life at the FBU farm, every morning at sunrise, and made its place in my heart (and stomach) during my stay with Marco.  It has made instant coffee delicious and ¨boring¨ queso fresco ever-distinct and tasty.  What strikes me now is that it is dearly missing from my homeland.  Even whole fat organic milk can´t compare with that glob of yellowish cream floating atop a pot of boiled milk from a nearby vaca.

Maybe I´ll end up raising cows and providing you all with the sweetness of that daily froth.  In the meantime, as paisajes and avenidas fade to memory and my body adjusts to clean tap water and burritos, I´ll be saying a long, loving adiosGracias.

It was well past nightfall, raining off and on and freezing.  Hanes, my new friend from the FBU farm and weekend travel companion, turned to me: ¨I think it´s better that we can´t see much,¨ pointing down– down— to some tungsten lights in the valley below where our bus swerved and braked, jolted and rumbled from Latacunga to Zumbahua.  By now, the combination of hair-raising curves and inexact drivers doesn´t make me flinch, too hard.  I laid my head back again, dozing despite the cramped seat and line of locals murmuring in the aisle beside me.

When we arrived at Zumbahua, a small but vibrant community along the windy road to Quevedo in the lowlands, a young man immediately offered a cabinet to Quilotoa.  Gee whiz, we thinking we´d call it a day (early rise and harvest at FBU, Easter lunch of fanesca bean soup, and six hours of transit already), but… might as well catch a ride when it´s handed to you, right?  Unsure of how long we´d be shivering on the little board in the back of the camioneta, Hanes retrieved her sleeping bag and we huddled closer with another young woman at our side, swinging back and forth at every hairpin curve.  Zumbahua´s lights slowly disappeared as I noticed the shadows of the antiplano peaks against faint stars.  It had cleared, finally.  At long last, I was arriving at Laguna Quilotoa, a place I´ve dreamed about for months: high, thin air, chilly breezes, views of Mount Cotopaxi and rolling green fields below… and of course, the lake.  My sleepiness slipped away, and even before I laid eyes on Laguna Quilotoa, I felt more alive, bristling and giddy with anticipation.

Just look…

Sunrise over Laguna Quilotoa, with the twin Iliniza mountains in the distance.

Early morning, completely blown away by this place.  It looks similar to Oregon´s Crater Lake, but the trail around the rim is only 7.5 miles (compared to 35 miles).

The colors of the water shifted throughout the morning, from deep blue to bright turquoise and pale yellow near the edges.

Me and Hanes above the town, jolly and energized by the views and sun.  She spoke of how badly she wished her relatives could be there with us.  I can´t think of one person I know that wouldn´t love it.

Looking west where the clouds cleared for short glimpses of jagged hills.

The entire rim was llena with wildflowers: purple lupines, yellow columbines, bright pink bells, and even Indian paintbrush.  The alpine plains are livelier and more colorful than you might think.

Giddy after the biggest climb, looking south-east toward Latacunga.  Mind you, the town of Quilotoa is at 3850 meters, so we were huffing it at over 12,000 feet for parts of the hike.  My legs still ached a bit from the Quito-Mindo hike, but my lungs felt great.

About 2/3 around the lake, it started to fog over, rain, and even hail on us.  I hardly minded the frozen fingers and wet feet as we crossed paths with alpacas, lambs, and locals yelling in Kichwa about an impending mudslide we had to cross.  By far, one of the highlights of my time in Ecuador.

Martes, 12.4.11 @ FBU

6:20– First wakening, from the kitten that is now staying in the volunteer house.  I want to name it Pluma since it´s so light and feathery, and it´s face reminds me of a bird sometimes.  The German boys have given it a boy´s name, even though we already know it´s female.  Its whiskers tickle my cheeks as it rouses for the day.

6:30– My alarm finally goes off and I force myself not to fall back into my wild dreams.  I´m signed up to collect milk this morning (and show the new volunteer, Felix, where to do it), so I can´t drift back.  I throw off the four thick wool blankets and follow Pluma to the bathroom.

6:50– After leaving the two liters of fresh, still-warm milk to boil with Felix in the kitchen, I set back out in my rubber boots to feed the chickens and collect any eggs they´ve left over the weekend.  They are the same kind as our old chickens on Bell Avenue, and as I open the door to their run I´m bombarded by memories of leading Camus, Gloria, Rosey and Pollo around the back yard with a stalk of flowering broccoli.  They stare and cluck as I measure out their daily corn ration, chasing me to the feeder past verdant tufts of grass.  Something must be done to make them eat that grass.  The yolks just aren´t orange enough… but they´ll do.  Twenty eggs.

7:05– I retreat to my room for 20 minutes of yoga.  My mind switches back and forth between concentration ont eh stretches and everything there is to do on the farm.  The volunteer coordinator and de facto huerta manager, Fred, is in Guatemala this week doing a training in microbusiness, and he basically put me in charge of the garden while he´s away.  Yesterday I spent all morning flinging myself from bed to bed, feeling almost frantic about what needs doing.  Much of it is already planted, but the thought of manually preparing all the spent beds– hoe, deeply, in clay-mud, wheelbarrow compost and pumice, pitchfork it in, rake it out, shape the bed…– makes my back ache even more.  Ahhh, back to that stretch.  Temporary relief.

7:30– I emerge again for breakfast.  Today, since we´re one egg short of a full cubeta to sell in the afternoon, I go for oatmeal.  Mix water and milk, boil with oats, add salt, sugar, and cinnamon, and top with a couple of those famous ripe oritos.  No coffee for now, though I might buy some when we go to Intag later this week to pick up warm-weather produce from an allied farmer.  They have an association of organic farmers there, and they happen to produce the best quality café in the country.

7:50– Philip, another young German who´s here at FBU for a whole year (the gap year is paid for by the government if they choose social service like this), finally enters the kitchen.  I was about to go wake him up, since today is harvest day and, though I helped last week, he´s needed to direct the show.

8:00– I go out to ¨piddle around¨ until the others are ready.  I find one of the giant pigs with an hours-old litter of nine piglets, all dazzling and fluffy, stirring around her overfull teats.  One is laying, bare and soggy, ont he other side of the concrete pen.   It was stillborn, I learn later.  The rest look healthy and already plump.

8:20– We begin harvest.  Felix, Kirsten (another new German, a bit older and here for just a few weeks), and I set out to collect chard.  A sad crop, but we gather four bunches of ten leaves each, plus a pile of holey or old leaves for the cows.  Kirsten gets pulled out by Esteban, who runs the tree nursery, to help move 5000 saplings.  She wants to practice her Spanish anyway, right?

9:30– As we harvest, I can´t help jumping back to GTF last year.  The smell of lettuce butt as the ugly leaves fall to the ground.  How many times did it take me to make a presentable bunch of chard?  Delicate cauliflower leaves hugging the glistening head– almost coy.  And carrots: how I miss those power hoses on a muddy day.

10:00– Felix, Philip, and I finish the harvest: 4 chard, 2 celery, 10 head lettuce and 6 romaine, 14 beautiful broccoli, 8 cauliflower ranging from golf ball to plate-sized, a few tomate de arbol, 4 nice fennel, several zucchini, and a pile of stout carrots.  Last week we made about $15 selling to various restaurants and conscious individuals in Tabacundo and Cayambe.  Compared to Corvallis prices, our customers are some lucky SOBS.

10:20– I´m zig-zagging plastic string between two not-so-taut wires we´re just rigged for the sweet peas.  Poor things were flopping all over the place.  Despite the mud (and therefore kinda wiggly posts) and hand-tightened wire, I can already see the plants happier.  Two weeks from now the supports will be smothered, I reckon.

10:30– I sign out to make lunch.  Collect 6 or 7 loose heads of broccoli, a couple romaine, some neglected beets, arugula, and the carrots left over from Saturday´s sales on the Panamericana.  So much to do in the garden, but it feels good to walk away for now.

11:50– I´m ladling quinoa-broccoli-onion soup into the blender as people trickle in from work.  I want the soup to be cream of broccoli, so I do one more blender-full before carrying out the salad and boiled beets.  The soup is a successful experiment, chunky and creamy with a nice grainy texture thanks to the quinoa.  Lots of veggies for one meal, but I´m happy as a clam and relieved that everyone eats it without a fuss (… well, I´m the only one eating the beet greens…).

1:00– After cleaning the kitchen, taking the compost to the pigs, and collecting three more eggs to fill the cubeta, I need to lie down for a minute.  Nobody´s about to give me a hard time.  And besides, Valentine (the fourth German, here for a year) ends up reading and sleeping all afternoon instead of going to sell with the others.  It´s raining for the moment, though, so…

1:30– I´m back in the garden, somehow getting myself to hoe up a little bed where I want to transplant chard and onion.  After hauling compost and cascajo (the pumice), I´m only half disappointed to be forced under cover by the rain.  I retreat to start a project that´s been calling me since I first got here and spilled a handful of cabbage seeds while trying to find the rosemary packet.

2:00– The seed shed.  It´s a mess.   Filthy, like with rotting potatoes against one wall and a pile of semi-fresh cow shit right in the middle.  (Why, cow, here?!)  I get to work, piling and sorting what I can on the floor (boots, old milk jugs, animal medicines, bunched sheets…) before honing in on the seeds.  Most are in a plastic storage bin, but some are lying out in packets or cans, and even in the bin there´s exactly zero sense of organization.  After a half hour or so of sorting and deciphering hand-written labels, I´m standing in front of a shelf full of plastic cups: the Brassica, the lettuces, the onions, etc.  At the bottom of the bin, I find a big bag of soy beans and couple disintegrating baggies of purple corn.  And sunflower seeds!  I´m excited.

4:00– After a proper inventory with Felix and another six eggs collected from the henhouse, I sit down with a cup of German black tea and try to make sense– for the second time in a week– of what needs to get done in the huerta.  Seeds we have, seeds we need, starts ready to transplant… and to top it all off, what phase of moon we´re in.  Today´s the first quarter, so five days from now ill be perfect for seeding fruits, leaves, and bus crops.  Roots and some leaves are best left for once the moon is waning; the gravity shift pulls all sap and water (and blood, apparently!) downward, so roots develop faster.  Vice versa for fruits (sap and water pulled up by the waxing moon means greater production above ground)– but leaves like lettuce and arugula are a draw since we´d like big leaves but no flowers.  How much of a difference does this practice actually make?  Lots, according to the old volunteer coordinator and most farmers here.  I believe it, but for now I´ll worry more about getting anything to grow at all.

5:10– I´m running down toward Picalqui, the nearest village, and somehow I´ve dodged the rain.  It´s easy flying downhill, long as I don´t slip or trip over bumpy grass or cobblestone.  Once I hit the valley floor and begin to climb, I remember that I´m at almost 10,000 feet.  Huff.  But hey, it´s easier by the day.  To distract myself, I remember my mantra from running with Marco: ¨Fuerza fuerza no se para!¨ I wonder if I have a future in garden planning, and what adventures I´ll get up to with Maria in May.

7:00– As we eat mashed potatoes and frittata prepared by Felix, he and Valentine try to teach me some German.  They´re insisting that you can never write how someone speaks (like, ¨Gimme that¨ or ¨Nothin´to it!¨) in German.  Blasphemy, they say.  One day, perhaps I will understand.  For now, my English has gotten more clear and proper so they understand me, and I can never quite figure out whether I think and dream in Spanish or not.  Almenos un poco.

9:30– After writing all this, I go out to brush my teeth and am pleasantly surprised and amused that the whole house is dark.  We be tired.

I went to the coast, again.  Got swept away by a gorgeous sincere friend, his ¨Chilumbiano¨ friend and employee, a Yankee turned Ecuadorian, an English couple now living in Mindo and their visiting friend, a German-Ecuadorian woman who runs a hostel in Mindo, and two goofy guys from the same town.  All in all there were ten of us, plus the driver of our little van and his wife.  From Mindo, we took off Sunday afternoon and made it to the ocean at sunset.  Feet in the Pacific again, I was thinking ¨Why did I ever leave the coast?!¨  We slept in Canoa, that little town I stayed in earlier this year, for two nights, lazing in the sun all day and exploring the critter-covered rocks down the beach.  I assumed, with some trepidation, that we would be partying all week since this group tends to meet up at Armando´s bar on the weekends.  We stayed tranquilo, though, until we got to Montañita on Tuesday.  That town is renowned for its alternative, festive, party scene (not to mention its killer surfing waves), and the minute we arrived I could tell why.  There were jugglers and artisans lining the main street, bars and restaurants and hostals at every corner, and loads of clothing and surf gear shops.  

 

Outside ¨Pais Libre¨ Hostal in Canoa with Armando.

 For the first time since I arrived in Ecuador, I stayed out well past my bed time dancing and gallivanting around with Armando, Sergio (the Chilumbiano), Marco (the American-Ecuadorian who tended to play the role of padron), and whoever we happened to run into on the street.  I practiced my poi with some guys that seemed to have been there for years, ended up with a panama hat on my head all night (some of you know how I get with hats), and couldn`t stop dancing despite the suffocating heat.  I wanted it to happen again the next night… but times like that can`t be anticipated, can they?

After Montañita we crowded back into the van and continued down the Ruta del Sol to Salinas, where Marco has an beachfront apartment.  We took turns cooking dinners and lunches as teams and I managed to completely lose sight of any routine or discipline I usually keep.  Beach, cool ocean (since it`s out on a peninsula it`s not the normal bath-water in other towns), strolls, gazing out from the eighth floor balcony, and lots of lazing. 

The view from Marco`s apartment in Salinas.  Ahhhhh…

Too much lazing, as it turned out.

When we returned to Mindo last Sunday, I knew it was time to leave Armando and Mindo for a while and find something more productive and satisfying.  I needed a return to routine, to space and time for myself, and to something more structured.  I know, I just wrote about how I needed to let go of everything for a while… and I did.  I threw myself head first into a no-plan, a road trip led by almost-strangers, and a potential love.  I guess it took all that to remind me at my core that Apollo– the god of order, discipline, and work– is just as important in my life as Dionysus, the goddess of chaos, revelry, and play.  Sometimes I forget… okay?

La playa en Salinas

The gang.   🙂

I learned how to bleed a chicken before breakfast on Friday.  I was hungry and sleepy when Marco stalked off to the hen-house, his wife Maria shaking her head and smiling, and I quickly slipped my sandals on to follow him when he returned with a half-dead, shaking black chicken.  He´d already broken it´s thin, straggly neck, and we knelt behind the bathroom to let out its blood.  A quick nick under the beak, hold the spastic body tight under a bag until the spurting stops, shake firmly, and we´re ready for breakfast.

No, we didn´t eat the chicken for breakfast.  We had bolón instead, a dish that´s fast becoming a staple in my life: boiled and mashed plátano, papa china, or, this morning, green oritos (those deliciously sweet mini bananas), mixed with onion and tomato and topped with cheese or a fried egg.  Along with a cup of steamy, panela– (raw sugar) and café- infused milk that a woman drops off every couple days on her way back from her cows, any combination of jungle food gets me going in the morning.

Boiled papa china

Fresh oritos, which we´ll cook like plantains until they ripen into mini bananas

Take this morning.  I went for a run as the sun rose over the eastern lowlands, doused myself thoroughly in the chorro (a small stream a few minutes from the house that´s been crafted into a flowing ¨shower¨), and plucked a few tender yuca leaves on my way back from the stream.  Since Marco went to town with his wife for groceries, it was the first breakfast I´ve made alone since I arrived, and oh boy was I pleased with myself.  Steam-fried papa chinas with a few oritos and onion, topped with yuca leaves and cheese, a fried egg, and a steamy cup of sweet coffee.  For lunch I made practically the same, though less gourmet: boiled oritos in their peels (they slip out easily once they´re cooked) with an egg and a healthy dose of ají sauce to spice it up.

If you really are what you eat, I am quickly becoming this finca.  Even the selva is making its way into my bones.

Plato de oja, eating lunch in the forest during our leaf-harvest

On Thursday, we set out with María (Marco´s wife) and a group of gringos staying at a farm near her house to collect more paja (leaves) for the thatch roofs.  We had already brought home 6 bundles (negotiated at $3 each since it´s ¨u-pick¨) on Wednesday, each containing over 100 of these giant tojilla leaves, and we only needed two more.  While Marco and María chopped the leaves down from their lofty stalks, I and the others took them up and with both hands split each leaf down the middle, sorting the sides and keeping a loose, generous count for the new bundles.  It´s fun, sticky work, and I managed to see dozens of new flies, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other bichos of dazzling colors and shapes.  With 12 hands, we finished quickly, left the bundles on the side of the road, and started walking further adentro the forest.

The rest of the day was a moving feast in the forest, nibbling here and there on various fruits and seeds.  María has a plot of land on her sister´s property with plantains and bananas, but when we went to collect them we found that they had all, tragically, been eaten by monkeys and wantas.  With empty hands (well, except a couple stalks of sugar cane to gnaw), we moved back to the road, to the strip of land owned by the farm where the other gringos volunteer.  The owner had constructed a hut up further into the forest, so we made our way to it, slowly at first gathering guayaba (what we call guava, I think) and delicious guava (a huge green pod dangling from the trees full of fuzzy white fruit), then quickly as a strong rain shower easily soaked us.  We waited out the last half of the shower in the hut, but restlessly ventured out again once it abated.  Marco wanted to check on the paso trees nearby, which were mostly unripe– the only ripe one we found has a bright orange inner peel and tasted nutty, slightly sweet.  The fog that had rolled in blocked any view we may have found, so we climbed and slipped our way back down toward the road.  And suddenly a crazed squawking and flapping caught us for another stop in that brimming jungle: we´d surprised a pava, a type of small, turkey-like bird that roams the treetops and some days acts as a flawless alarm clock, that was chomping on seeds high up in a tree by our path.  The seeds, called cundshaya (pronounced cunjaya in my mind), look like dark olives and happen to be a favorite treat for people who know them.  Call him fearless or foolhardy, Marco didn´t hesitate to climb the tree trunk (without branches for the first 6 meters) and begin harvesting the seed bunches as María and I scampered about, collecting seeds, fending off angry ants, and dodging the heavy bunches that Marco tossed down.  In the end we almost filled his small backpack, and we´ve been snacking on them, after a quick soak in tepid water, ever since.  The bitter, dark skins are supposed to heal kidney infections.  At the very least, I can tell by their taste and color that they´re full of nutrients and healthful chemicals.

I´m getting hungry with all this talk of comida.  It´s a half-hour bus ride back to the farm, so I might buy an ice cream (what a treat here!) or roll to hold me over until I can cook some real hearty jungle food.  When I leave in two weeks, I can tell that my tissues will sorely miss their daily dose of Amazonian finca.

It´s amazing how quickly my life can change, and how easy it is for me to sink into a new form of living.  I am now living about 30 minutes south Puyo, just on the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazonía, with a man named Marco.  He happens to be one of the few practicing shamans outside of the interior forest (where some tribes still live relatively traditional lives), and for the next three weeks I will be learning from him, working for him, and doing a good deal of time-passing on the beautiful property he care-takes.  On Wednesday, after almost a full, lazy day of rain, we woke before sunrise to walk in the forest…

After about a half-hour of walking through cattle ground (mostly tall maiz-like grass spotted with palms), as the sun´s light gradually flooded the valley, we reached the first river.  ¿Tienes miedo de las alturas? Marco asked as we approached.  Well, No, normalmente no… This crossing didn´t change that: just a log, rather slippery, a foot wide and only 5 or 6 meters across to the other side.  I chose not to look away from the log as I stepped along, but in retrospect I´d guess the fall would have been about 12 feet.  Not bad.

From this first river, we continued through tall grasses– now more scarce among the forested pockets– and Marco pulled a bunch of tiny coconuts, still a bit bitter, down from a tree for us to suck on.  Further on we found a delicate menthol plant, roots pungent and refreshing, then a ¨crab´s claw¨, a type of thin red stalk with a rhubarb-like texture that subdues thirst.  Soon we found a couple of plants used in the wedding ceremonies of his ancestral tribe, the Andoas of Peru: a long thread-like vine that they would wrap over the shoulders and around the torso and waist of the bride and groom, then tied around their joined wrists to signify their union.  The ceremony then continued, rather bizarrely by Western standards, as such: the bride and groom were rubbed head to toe with an aphrodisiac plant whose leaves smell strongly of cloves and cinnamon, then lead to a bed of heart-shaped leaves on the ground.  To complete the marriage, they would then make love, all riled up from the aphrodisiac, in the middle of a circle of elder witnesses of the tribe.  After this, they would sit on a pile of ortigas (akin to stinging nettle) to awaken their energies and ensure a productive, fruitful life together.

I wish I could videotape every single conversation I´ve had with Marco.  It is all that fascinating.

The cinnamon-scented uagra simaiyucca, a traditional aphrodesiac.

On with the selva.  At the next river, Marco crossed with a rope swing but then accidentally let go of the rope… so, I proceeded to hack away at a nearby tree with his machete in order to fashion a pole to rescue the rope.  Machete hacking is harder than it looks, and I don´t fully understand how he can clear so many branches and ferns as he walks along– ching!  ching!– so nonchalantly.  We ended up walking along opposite banks after I caught, threw, and re-lost the rope over the river.  Boots off to avoid flooding my feet, steady does it through the current, and we arrived on the other bank.  Finally, selva primaria.  One of the only parcels this far west.

Almost immediately, Marco pointed out the sound of a jaguar off in the trees, alert to our smell, and he reminded me to stay close– don´t stray too far back– because jaguars always prey on the last person in line.  This species was relatively small of rosey-tan in color like a puma (though we didn´t see it)– the same kind that he once encountered at night, alone, stalking along the forest floor.  It´d scampered off when Marco finally directed his flashlight in its eyes.  He´s also run across a black panther, bigger and more aggressive, but it, too, snuck away rather than confront him.  Soon after the jaguar´s soft call faded, we stopped to smell the spicy bark of a tree and were soon running downhill after what sounded like a monkey, about 50 meters away.  After just a couple glimpses, Marco could tell it was only an ardilla, a type of squirrel.  Still looked like a monkey to me!

Eventually, after many more stops to look at plants and tree bark and listen to bird calls, we arrived at the Quindi Pakcha: Waterfall Where the Hummingbirds Nest.  All around were these bright red flowers, Labios de Mama Negra, which start as luscious lips and eventually turn into leaves, like a poinsettia.    The waterfall itself is small but magnificent, and the area around it is steadfast and calm, with huge fern fronds hanging over its banks, giant trees loaded with epiphytes at every bend, mosses and river shrimp and giant iridescent blue butterflies flapping downstream.  Like a dream, hidden yet more real than anything in ¨our¨ world: lemon tea, porches, reggaeton bumping from the cafe next door.

At the waterfall with Labios de Mama Negra.

Without much delay, we stripped to our swimsuits, gingerly stepped out along a log overhanging the cascada, and whump! jumped into the bubbly mess below.    Ah yes, before that, though, Marco asked if I´d been in any selva or river here before, and proceeded to rub a plant that grows all along its banks over my arms, head, and legs so that the river would accept me and keep me from harm.  It worked.  Swimming in that freezing water revived me like nothing had since the coast– the water smelled different from any I´ve ever jumped in, almost musty but still clean and fresh.

After we swam a bit, we sat on a rock in the river while Marco recounted more of his history.  It was at this waterfall, about 20 years ago, that his brother began to teach him and impart his shamanistic powers.  Each morning they would rise from their nearby camp just before 5 am in order to beat the hummingbirds to the waterfall.  The tiny colibrí bathed and drank at 5 am sharp every day, and the brothers came before them so that they could receive the full strength and power of the cascada.  He grew up very near to this spot, before there were roads or power or people.  His father died when he was just 4 years by falling from a roof he was fixing; he is suspected to have been negatively affected by a rival shaman, and Marco´s father actually foresaw his death under the influence of a powerful forest plant, maricahua, that shamans use to foretell the future, converse with plants, and solve mysteries.  Marco grew up here with his mother and brothers, tending small plots of yucca, papachina, and maíz heavily supplemented with the forest´s abundance: foot-long fish in every river, snakes, monkeys and meat from all kinds of other mammals.  Before the highway was built when he was 12, before people flooded the region to hunt and log and mine resources, before his family had the opportunities to watch TV, buy new conveniences, and listen to modern music, Marco and his family hunted with blow guns, tips laced with a precious mix of three rare jungle plants.  Their shirts and dresses lasted years out of necessity– they took the best care of them because they only had one.  When the highway first came, they were elated to have better contact with the outside world; it was a welcome treat and change from such a rustic life.  By the time Marco began school at 16 years old, he had begun to notice that the animals were scarcer–his only clue of a disappearing forest and way of life.  Still, after stopping high school in his early twenties, he didn´t fully realize the gravity of change in his homeland, and he proceeded to marry, have kids, and work in town.  When his brother, who´d learned the shamanic ways from their father before his death, began to pass on that wisdom– entering the selva and cultivating a vast knowledge of all the plants and animals there– Marco finally fully realized the irreversible changes that the highway has brought.  Now, organizations and citizens´groups are sometimes plagued by corruption and misguided decision-making in the face of intense pressure from extractive industries.  From where I stand, people like Marco– truly dedicated and determined to retain their dwindling oral knowledge and conserve what forest remains–are the brightest hope for this forest in a world gone mad for money and ¨progress.¨

River-crossing on Saturday with two Italian guests.

There is so much more to share, and I hope to upload photos and descriptions of more of the curative plants that I´m getting to know.  For now, here´s a short list of some of the things Marco and this forest could help you with:

Blood-coagulant to slow snake venom (bark), labor-inducer and pain relief (large pink flowers), abortions (leaves with blood-red spots), varicose veins (leaves with purple undersides), cancer prevention (small striped leaves), wart removal and circulation enhancer (tree with blood-red sap), stress reduction (long leaves), and removal of mal aire in a bath of several leaves.

I would love to hear more comments and questions, as I have way too much to share and could use some starting points!

Since I can`t upload photos at the moment, I`m going to skip about a week´s worth of stories and pictures from the coast and bring you right up to this morning.  Stay tuned for another post that`ll make you drool over the coast of Ecuador.

I am so, SO pleased to be back in the Andes after two weeks on the coast.  The air is thin, fresh, and cool, sending whiffs of eucalyptus and pàramo grass between puffs of exhaust from the buses.  I spent two days, about 13 hours in all, to arrive in Latacunga just south of Quito.  The town is situated between Mount Cotopaxi and a semi-famous loop of indigenous villages, where many people go to visit the Laguna Quilotoa.  Sleepy and weary, I skipped the loop and stopped in Latacunga for a couple hours to bask in the Andean sun and explore the town.  The difference between the coast and mountains is remarkable: beyond simple factors of climate, flora, and fauna, the people here appear more reserved, conservative, and less curious and outgoing toward me.  That said, I feel more comfortable here as a lone woman because the men don`t gawk (much) and people seem more occupied in general than on the coast, where from every window somebody stood watching, statuesque.

I was planning to stay in Latacunga, but for some reason felt like moving on once I got there: an impulse that hits, I`ve found, when I feel alone and uprooted.  I stopped in the town of San Miguel de Salcedo, just a few miles south of Latacunga, in order to try their famous ice cream.  Just about every store in town sells these layered cones of flavors on sticks, and a couple people were tickled that I´d come just for that reason.  Not surprising, though, since the ice cream was fabulous and made right in town.  Mine was vanilla with some strawberry jam inside, followed by layers of taxo, passionfruit, and naranjilla.  You know me.  I`ll be thinking about that ice cream for weeks.

This morning I hoisted myself out of bed in order to visit a market south of Riobamba, in a little town called Cajabamba.  I had read that it`s Sunday market is huge and colorful, and since I really haven`t visited a market here yet, I was excited to get out and see what was on offer.  The bus dropped me at the main stop, where a long row of vendors stood behind their stalls of potato balls and whole roasted pigs, clients sitting on stools all around.  I passed them by for the time being and bought a couple of beautiful, intensely flavorful red bananas.  An ancient woman sat with a young sheep on a leash as I walked down a side-street toward the market: she was just the first of several I saw, tugging their sheep behind their ponchos and skirts.  The women here (and impressively, even many young women and girls) where different versions of a poncho, sweaters, shirt, close-toed shoes, and fedora-style hat, usually with a peacock feather sticking up from the side.  Sometimes they`ll have a shiny embroidered hot pink poncho and high heels, I assume to be more fashionable, but either way the garb is standard and ubiquitous.  I love it.  Women`s hair is usually long, braided or in a tight pony tail or wrap, and their earrings and necklaces are gold, dangling gracefully around their smooth, steadfast faces.

You want to see a photo, huh?  I am sorry to say that today I remembered and fully accepted my great fault as a travel writer: I simply cannot take photographs of people unless I know them or it comes up somehow.  Some people can do this, and I highly recommend you google search ¨Ecuador Andes indigenous dress¨ or something similar.  I even talked to a few elderly, very interesting-looking people in the plaza today, and I couldn´t bring myself to ask for a photo.  It just doesn´t make sense at the time, so I hope you understand.  Here´s the only photo I have of the market, taken from the booth where I bought broccoli and onions:

The market itself was fairly ordinary, as far as foreign markets go.  Stands upon stands of bananas, taxo, zapotes (which I have yet to try), and avocados surrounded another section of vegetables: tomatoes, carrots, white carrots (a native Andean crop), cabbages bigger than basketballs, onions and leeks and peppers, oh my.  Around the corner, twenty bread stalls.  A section of huge bags of bulk pasta, rice, fresh-ground wheat, and corn.  One of the buildings was full of hanging meat, and I tried to hold my breath as a scurried past the tables of pig heads and rows of cow liver hanging at my shoulders.  The other was full of prepared food, and I stopped for a plate of that potato-ball-pork-rind combo.  Not as delicious as last night´s pile of potato-pancake-fried-egg-pork-salsa on the street near my hostel, but still satisfying.  I sat with a young woman near the stall and was surprised to learn that she was my age and had just one baby.  Usually I feel like an old maid when I speak with anyone, since my marital status and age unfailingly come up within two minutes of the Buenos dìas.

Fortunately today, the elderly vendors I spoke with in the plaza were delighted to hear my story– once we began to talk, they opened up, warm and curious.  I sat down on a long bench, and soon the woman next to me turned and asked where I came from.  I learned that she lives in Riobamba and makes braided nylon ropes to sell every day there, but on Sundays she comes to sell in Cajabamba.  She was seventy-four years old, probably about 4´10¨ (not very short around here), and her smile was contagious despite its showing only four bottom teeth.  She referred to me as ¨mi hijita,¨ which translates to an endearing ¨my little daughter,¨ but is used between strangers all the time.  As she gathered her ropes to continue selling, another elderly woman approached to buy, four for a dollar, and we shook hands goodbye.  The man to my left, in a felt fedora and windbreaker, seemed to speak little Spanish at first, but we ended up talking for a while as well.  He was selling at the market with his wife, smiling and wrapped in a plaid wool poncho, and a couple sons.  They lived just up the hill and had ¨una docena¨ de hijos (twelve or so), where they farmed the usual papa, cebolla, zanahoria blanca, etc.  I was happy to share my farming experience with him, and that I was interested to see this market because I worked at a similar one in the Estados Unidos.  Really, besides the degree of ¨scraping by¨ that farmers and vendors experience here, the market itself is similar to one in the States: people get together, chat and catch up on the week, select and sell and eat, and hopefully go home with some cash.  For me, it was an opportunity to try new produce, stock up for the week, and most importantly talk with some of the locals whose lives seem incredibly different from my own.