Published: March 15th 2012January 8th 2012 New Years in Rio Bamba
The top of the volcano is the closest point on the Earth to the Sun.
Between Montañita and getting to Volcán Chimborazo there was New Years. I spent it in Rio Bamba, the city nearest to Chimborazo and where I arranged my volunteering I started my night with Wlady and the other agency staff in the office before hits the streets and spent the strike of midnight with a group of locals in a park, speaking almost exclusively Spanish the whole night. Of course I had wanted to spend NYE with Mor, but as I couldn't do that, spending it in this fashion was the best thing for me.
Ecuador has a rather fantastic tradition for New Years Eve; huge numbers of effigies are set alight in a symbolic gesture to burn away the bad from the previous year to give the New Year a clean slate. To keep children interested in this NYE tradition the effigies often take the form of cartoon characters, and thanks to the recent movie release, the majority this year were Smurfs. Giant Papa Smurfs, Simpsons, Bender's, Woody's and Buzz Lightyear's lined the streets and one by one; all were thrown into the roads and burnt to ash. My group had something a little
different ad so it came to be that at midnight in Rio Bamba, I found myself kicking the hell out of and setting alight an effigy of Rafael Correa, Ecuador's President. Why Volunteer?
I have always wanted to do some volunteering, but I considered the idea as part of an ethical debate because you have to pay to participate in some programmes and in some cases it can take away the job of a local person who needs the work. I have also had a fear of locking myself in a strange location and position and perhaps not being able to do the task well. I finally took the jump because my time over Christmas gave me the confidence to go for it and the opportunity sounded perfect. I wanted to put myself somewhere remote, away from other travellers and somewhere I could get in shape and acclimatize in order to prepare for another attempt to climb a high altitude mountain. The term 'volunteering' became redundant, I would be joined a community on the side of Volcán Chimborazo who support themselves and would did not need me there, but I would get to experience community life,
be able to help as much as possible and know that some of my agency fee would go directly to the community - I would be paying for an experience, I was there for me. Volunteering – Monday
Volcán Chimborazo towered over Rio Bamba and grew ever taller as we approached the small community of San Pablo. It's not a fantastically well known mountain, but at 6300m, it is the tallest mountain in Ecuador and thanks to the Earth's bulge around the Equator, its peak is in fact the closest point to the Sun on the planet. I couldn't think of a better place to start 2012.
The car pulled up at the entrance to the community and after grabbing my backpack and food, I was led to my home for the next two weeks. The volunteer house had a good kitchen, a bathroom that promised (but ultimately failed to deliver) hot water and a bay window hammock from which the volcano was in full view. I unpacked and settled in a little before collecting by my volunteering go-to guy, Olmedo, and leaving for the community.
Leaving my house, I was already at 3900m,
the full effects of which I felt as Olmedo led me up a muddy, long and steep incline. By the time we finally made it up I was breathing heavily and stopped to take a rest. As I stood and attempted to catch my breath I watched a wall of clouds rapidly sweep in and absorb the mountain and its surrounding valleys. I hopped over an irrigated stream and was led past a few small huts that were a simple construction of a large hole with a conical wooden frame over the top covered in hay. As my eyes took in my new surroundings I realised that my ears were doing almost nothing, the village was eerily quiet.
I was led past several increasingly bigger linked pools of water before we reached a much larger pool surrounded by a high wire fence. Olmedo proudly informed me that this trout farm was a relatively new addition and one that was bringing in a great new income stream to the community. We arrived at the community building, a simple concrete building and I was introduced to an older man with a beige hat named Juan, Olmedo's father.
After a quick
introduction Olmedo left me with Juan who was a very busy man, being one of only a few people who had stayed for the duration of the New Year’s period. This fact was the explanation as to why the community had felt so eerie when I arrived. I liked Juan immediately, and although our language barrier was difficult, I managed to tell him where I'm from, that I was looking forward to working with him and that I had plans to climb the mountain after my time in the community was up. In return he told me told about and showed me his current project, building a new bathroom for the community. Juan is a man of many trades and he had single handedly undertaken all of the construction including the concreting and brick laying and was now moving onto doing the plumbing. As the community was essentially asleep there was very little for me to do other than to sit and talk with Juan and pass him tools as he needed them. Before I left for lunch he asked me whether I'd tried eating cuy before (guinea pig), to which I responded no, but indicated that I would try
it at some point. He seemed pleased and I laughed as he spoke of the disappointment he felt when a pair of German vegetarians had stayed in the community.
After lunch I tried to help in the little ways I could, but as before there wasn't really a huge amount I could do and so I left to go explore some of my surroundings. I entered the community building which had a table for meetings and a corner where a large wooden wool producing machine sat, but there was little else so I left and hiked to the top of the village. The clouds prevented me from seeing the mountain but I was granted the beautiful view surrounded my new home. Through the throngs of sheep I could see the community building, the homes, curious breeze block outhouses that lacked doors and far below, my house, more houses, donkeys, alpacas and a couple of better constructed buildings that housed a school and a hostel.
I returned to Juan and sat with him awhile, appreciating his kind pace of Spanish before Olmedo returned and took me to meet the alpacas. As almost all of the communities were away, the
animals had not been taken up the mountain, but were instead residing in a crudely penned area close to the village. I wondered why I hadn't noticed them earlier, before realising that they had been lost to the clouds in the morning. We hurried around the large pen waving sticks and whistling at the animals as they stomped and lumbered in miscellaneous directions before finally deciding to work with us and head out and back down to the community where we shut them in their paddock for the night. For those that are unfamiliar with alpacas, they closely resemble llamas, though their wool is finer, their ears pointier and they are a little smaller. Llamas are bred primarily for transporting goods, whereas alpacas are bred for their highly valued wool.
Once back in their evening accommodation and all 102 alpacas were accounted for I too returned to my evening accommodation, which I spent reading and learning a little Spanish - it was nice peaceful evening that was only interrupted by a rude mouse that ran under my feet in the kitchen. Tuesday
I awoke bright and early on my second morning and was frying some
eggs Olmedo knocked on my window. I invited him in and we shared a couple of egg sandwiches before leaving and ascending steep trail to the village. The community had returned and around 30 people were gathered near the alpaca pen where a morning register was taking place. The women all wore bright shawls or red, blue or green and long dresses with their head topped by different hats dependent on their marital status. The men wore an assortment of branded jackets, jeans and wellington boots. I received plenty of friendly, curious looks as I stood aside whilst the register was taken and I got the impression that not many people have joined this particular programme, though it could have been the simple truth that I looked fairly hobo-ish having not shaved for a couple of weeks, all of the community men were clean shaven. Once the Quechua spoken meeting was completed and the day’s work allocated, almost everyone grabbed their tools and left for the fields and leaving me with Juan.
We walked the short distance to his home and I waited whilst he retrieved some heavy pegs that we took to a paddock full of sheep. Juan
entered the paddock and began to approach the animals in turn, from behind slowly, stepping on a leather rope attached to one of the sheep in order to get close enough to grab a piece of fabric tied around each ones neck, pulling it up and over the mouth, to stop them biting. I asked if I could help and once given the nod I entered the paddock and proceeded to fail at being any use whatsoever. I tried my best to copy Juan's style of movement, but for whatever reason I couldn't sneak up on any of them - every time I believed I was in stealth mode, the animal would panic and run away. I remember thinking to myself, "This is why you are not a true volunteer; you can't even catch a sheep whilst the local did all the work".
After Juan had masked all of the sheep he handed me a stick and we marched the animals out of the paddock, heading through the community and into one of the steep surrounding fields. As we began to descend the field I tried desperately not to fall over whilst observing the villagers in the distance using
axes to break dirt in long lines, I fell over.
Once we arrived at our destination Juan began to catch the sheep once again, attaching two to each peg and planting them in the ground. I used a little initiative and decided to once again try to be useful and attempted to catch some of the sheep. This led to me completely exhausting myself by running up and down the mountain-side and falling over once more. Fortunately I did manage to catch a couple of sheep and I held onto them for dear life until Juan arrived to peg them to the ground.
We returned to the community where we sieved a large amount of cement mix before Juan shoveled it into a rusty and rickety old wheelbarrow and pushed as hard as I could to move the load up a grassy slope to the bathroom. After we had enough mix Juan and I filled some paint buckets with water and he started to manually mix the cement using a shovel - definitely no mechanical luxuries in San Pablo. I watched for some time as he churned water and cement powder without breaking a sweat before slapping the
wet mixture against the inside walls of the bathroom and smoothing it to finish the walls. The movement was somewhat hypnotic and as Juan used unfamiliar words I looked them up in my dictionary and took notes.
I returned to my house for lunch, eating a strange mix of baked beans, bacon, carrots and potato, before returning to the community where a group of the men had started to dig a long trench from the bathroom to a large hole that was to become the septic tank. I sat awhile talking with Juan as he worked before realising that I would not be given any work and so I asked if I could help out with the digging. He looked a little bemused, in my head I imagine he must have thought it was a little strange that a random white guy would arrive in his village and ask if he help dig a muddy trench. I explained that I was here to help in any way I could and that by the end of my time in the community I would like to leave 'mucho más fuerte' (much stronger). He smiled and handed me an azada (heavy hoe),
Much like Juan, a number of the guys digging, stopped and looked at me a little bemused as I found some space between them and began to hurl my azada into the soft earth, throwing the mud onto the surrounding grass. The work was relatively light, everyone helped, but everyone took several swipes at the ground before standing upright and speaking for a minute or two, smiling, laughing and joking - many hands do indeed make light work.
The clouds grew heavier thunder began to rumble and echo throughout the valley and after some time, the rain followed. Several of us continued in the rain, but eventually the rain grew too heavy and everyone retreated to a hut containing the community kitchen. The building was constructed in the same fashion as the homes but far larger. One end was pitch black, from the ceiling hung a couple of wools and at the entrance near the doorway was a fire pit with a metal cooking frame over the top. The men I was sitting with asked me about England and how much money I could earn there, fair questions and I realised quickly that they were eager
to learn as much about me and as I was to learn about their lives. As they started to question me about my personal life one of them began to pour shots of clear liquor from a plastic yoghurt bottle into its cap, passing them around. I told them that I had no children, nor have I ever been married, though I did find myself telling them that I had a girlfriend from Israel. It wasn't true of course, but I felt that telling I had a girlfriend would make me seem less strange or lonely. They obviously appreciated my answers because they poured me a shot of the deathly strong liquor. We left the hut on the occasions when the rain subsided a little and completed digging the trench and therefore the day’s work. We had finished our work early, but the day doesn't officially finish until 4pm and so we once again sat inside the community kitchen. I told them about British landscape and the crops we grow and they were surprised to hear that they were relatively similar. They were happy when I told them that they had more sun and a more dramatic landscape and were
astounded to hear the price tag put on alpacas in the UK, and that they are used primarily to keep sheep safe. 4pm hit and after one final shot I headed off and through the rain, back to my house. Wednesday
I climbed the hill bright and early on Wednesday morning, it was to be my first day working with the alpacas and to do so, I had to start at 8am. When I arrived, the weeks shepherd, Manuél, had already left with the animals and so I joined the meeting, where several of the members welcomed me and shaking my hand and asking how I was - it was surprising how quickly the majority of the village had accepted my presence and how friendly they were. It gave me a strange feeling of being at home, whilst of course, I was very much an outsider with a heavy language barrier. I observed the meeting, in particular one of the men who was carrying a small and mucky dog in his arms and sneaking up on some of the women before pushing the dog into the back of their heads, causing them to jump in surprise.
The seemingly simple lifestyle of the community was nice to observe, everyone knew each other and they appeared wonderfully close and warm to each other, something that is a little vacant in many parts of Western culture. The continuous and endless conversations were also something that struck me when compared to the smart phone addicted part of the world that I'm from.
Once the meeting concluded most of the community grabbed an azada, collected a huge number of plants and starting walking up the mountain and I walked with them. I was only carrying my small bag containing a little food and my camera and so feeling a little lazy I walked faster, overtaking most of the community in an attempt to catch up Manuél and the alpacas. Before long I caught and met them, in a cloud.
Manuél didn't speak much; he was a man of few words. Perhaps this shouldn't have been a surprise considering he was used to shepherding alpacas up the side of a tremendous volcano with his dog for company. As we waded through the thick clouds we split up to try to look after the animals from two sides. It was difficult
though, the altitude made the ascent difficult and on occasion I had to run after a rogue alpaca attempting to break away from the group. Time moved in a surreal manner in the clouds, the thick mists allowed only a little light through, confusing times passage. As we crossed a dark sandy area with little foliage I realised I had absolutely no knowledge where we were, that knowledge was only Manuél and I could barely see a few metres in front of my face.
By mid-morning we reached a grassy valley and so we stopped for the animals to eat and for us to rest. I sat and watched the younger alpacas play together before in turn they all grew tired and found spots to sleep in the turf. I took out my Spanish book and studied a little before I heard the whistle of Manuél, indicating that we were carrying on up the mountain.
We arrived on a small plateau where a cold gust of wind cleared some of the clouds, revealing a rustic shack optimistically named Refugio 3. Presumably whilst walking in the clouds we completely missed the first two refuges. We sat for a short
while and I scored some brownie points by sharing some toffees with Manuél. The clouds cleared even further, revealing some of the dramatic and varied mountscape, along with the reason why the community were carrying huge numbers of plants up the mountain. In several places the foliage had turned to dust and sand, the plants were being set to build a barrier to prevent the cold winds from eroding the mountain any further, and thereby protecting their land.
Manuél, the dog and I finally reached our destination for the day at around 1pm; a broad plateau at around 4200m and we sat amongst the long grass for lunch. I foolishly hadn't realised that I of course I could hardly walk back down the mountain to my house for lunch and so ate the little food I had brought, a few toffees and a couple of bruised apples. I offered Manuél some of my toffees and gratefully accepted them and offered me a few of his boiled potatoes with onion in exchange, which I gratefully accepted and ate hungrily. It was simple food for a simple way of life.
After our simple meal was over, we were obviously both
hungry still because we started talking about food, in particular the delicious tastes of llama and alpaca steaks. The conversation wound down and whilst sitting upright on his rock, Manuél fell asleep. I took the quiet time to take a wander across the plateau to check out the views and the alpacas. Families were easy to spot, they often stuck close together and wonderfully one brown parent and one white parent always had a child that was patched colours of the two. I chuckled to myself at the image of what it would be like if human genetics mixed in the same way.
Manuél woke and began to collect wood as I clambered up and down the slopes to begin grouping the alpacas together. When he returned he was carrying a tremendous bundle of wood on his back, some of the huts have a tiny amount of electricity, but all cooking and heating is still done by open fire.
As we descended the mountain back to the village I began to recognize some of the animals. As is true with humans though, the most memorable were the pains. My biggest nemeses were Stumpy and Fat Butt. They were
Digging this out was difficult to say the least.
far slower than the rest and frequently stopped abruptly in their tracks to try to chow down as much extra grass as possible, they were a nightmare to keep moving. To be fair to them both though, they had good excuses. Stumpy was literally stumpy, his legs not long enough to carry him fast enough, and Fat Butt had recently given birth to These two were far slower than any of the others and it took far more effort to herd them forward, although irritatingly they. Once back we rounded up the animals as they lurched and jumped on each other and locked them in their pen for the night. Despite the heavy clouds and to my sheer amazement, we counted all 102. Thursday
I was exhausted by the time I reached the community meeting the following morning, the climb up the steep muddy trail was still killing me. Many of the villagers greeting my warmly as I approached, men and women shook my hand and asked how I was. I was still incredibly taken at just how friendly they all were towards me. Once the meeting was concluded I turned to head up the mountain
to meet Manuél and the alpacas, but Juan called me over and told me that I would be working with him instead and I followed him over to the community bathroom and presented with an axe and some soggy logs to cut up.
The words rang boldly in my head, "It's my time to shine!” I had used an axe and chopped wood plenty of times in Australia and therefore this task would be a great chance to claim some points by doing something useful and not being incompetent for a change. Sadly it was not to be. I repeatedly struck the axe into the sodden ground and on rare occasion into the piece of wood, to little effect. I want to defend my uselessness by pointing out that the axe was ancient, the blade blunt and the shaft held together by splinters pushed into cracks - I can't defend my uselessness though, a stocky women took the axe from hand and effortlessly raised it in the air before swinging it straight down, cracked the wood into two perfect pieces.
I stood looking useless as the lady continued to carve up the wood until I was approached by
one of the men, Segundo, who struck up a conversation with me. We spoke for a while before Juan asked me I could work with Segundo if I liked and so I followed him to a huge cuboid hole in the ground that was to become the septic pool for the bathroom. I spent the next few hours in the deep grave-like septic tank hole with Segundo, swinging pick axes and shoveling earth. The pick axe was easy enough, even I could use one and they were used to break the hard soil underneath our feet. The shoveling was far more difficult (it sounds stupid I know), once the earth was broken enough, we would pick up the dirt of the shovel and swing the spade upwards to get the soil to fly several metres up through the air and to land on the grass outside the grave. This took a substantial amount of strength along with control and whenever I wasn't puffing or panting from the exertion, I was usually hurling dirt upwards, but at the wall, from which it would rebound, covered myself and Segundo.
Around 11:00 we were called to the community kitchen. I hadn't realised,
but Juan’s family had been preparing a large family meal to which I was invited. Our starter was beef and rice and whilst they offered me a spoon, I chose to eat with my hands as they did. It was kind of them and reminded me of my days in India, except with beer of course.
The rest of the food was still cooking, so Segundo and I returned to our work until rain halted play. We'd spoken a lot; he was the first person in the community who had spoken a few words of English, words that he proudly used whenever the opportunity arose. He was also the first person I'd met who'd been outside of Ecuador, having worked construction jobs in Argentina and Peru.
Back in the community kitchen we ate a soup of potatoes, beans and somewhat strangely, some blocks of cheese too. Soup had never tasted better; its heat was a wonderful warrior in taking on the cold air and my rain-damp clothes. Dessert was a large bowl of beans that were passed round with salt. They were offered to me first and funny looks reached me as I started to eat them. I
realised my mistake once they'd started and I realised that I'd been eating them with the skins on, whilst they peeling theirs. Yes it's true; I even failed at eating beans properly. Pathetic. None the less, it was a surprisingly great snack, but I would find out soon enough that the meal was not over yet.
Pulled out from a black plastic bag was one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen, a barbecued guinea pig (known as 'cuy' locally, after the sound they make). It is certainly the most terrifying food I have seen, with the exception of salad. The feet were curled from the heat of the flames and I believe the hairs were burnt off as I cannot imagine anyone shaving a guinea pig, though the worst part was its jaw. In order to be skewered, the jaw had been cracked open and a slice cut deeply across the opposite sides of its mouth to give it an extended gory smile - it was like looking into the face of doom. Juan proudly presented me with a leg with some ribs attached and I mustered up the biggest smile that I could and accepted
The cuy tasted good, a strange cross between chicken and pork, perhaps not surprisingly. I was hugely appreciative to have been given the cuy, I do not know the cost, but I imagine that it was an unnecessary purchase for the community and it was a local specialty that they offered much with huge warmth - it was a wonderful gesture. I made sure I finished every scrap of meat from the tiny bones, no easy feat, and I enthusiastically thanked everyone before leaning back with my stuffed stomach podging out. There was one final part of the meal to go, a steaming mug of boiled rice water and sugar, a nice sweet finish. I cannot stress how grateful I was of the hospitality shown by Juan and his family, I had only been with them for a few days and despite our language barrier, they treated me like family.
A Canadian family showed up, including the man who had constructed the house I was staying in, they had returned to visit after many years away so he could show his girlfriend where he used to live and so that they could all the see the changes
since they left. Segundo and I returned to our hole and were joined by two women. The four of us worked together for the remainder of the afternoon, three of us in the hole and one above. Two inside would dig until the first got tired and swapped with the other. When all three inside the hole grew tired the woman outside would shift the earth we had thrown out to prevent it from falling back inside. It would have been a finely tuned machine if it hadn't been for my much less frequent, but occasional misfires when I would fling the dirt in the against the wall and back over the three of us. My technique had gotten much better as the day progressed and I like to think that they were impressed with my efforts, but I found myself in complete awe of how strong and fast the women could work, heaving at heavy loads whilst my body grew increasingly tired. Once the day was done at 4pm I sluggishly walked back to my house with my arms hanging limp at my sides, utterly exhausted. Friday
On the final morning of my first week
in the community I met Manuél to collect the alpacas and we herded them up the narrow mountain path by whistling, hitting our sticks on the floor and imitating the angry hissing sounds they sometimes made. On this Friday our field of vision was even weaker than ever before, though Manuél promised me that this was a good thing and that the skies would soon clear. We were moving up the mountain faster than our previous day together and after an hour Manuél's prediction came true and the cleared. Far away on the other side of the valley I spotted a small hut and found myself confused until I asked Manuél and he confirmed it was one that we'd sat outside previously and that we had in fact taken a completely different route up the mountain - I'd had absolutely no idea. With a clear sky helping we reached the days pasture point in a relatively short time and we sat upon some rocks and chatted for some time. There are several possible reasons why Manuél had not spoken to me much on our first day together, but we spoke a lot on our second day working together.
We left the alpacas on a relatively level part of the mountain whilst we sat high above so we could keep an eye on them all. I told Manuél about my plans to eventually have a go at climbing the mountain and that part of my preparation would be to acclimatize by hiking up to Templo Machay, a temple at 4650m on the mountainside. To my surprise he asked me if I would like to hike up at the moment, he said that the alpacas would be fine where they were; that we didn't need to move them until the end of the day and that the perfect weather was too good an opportunity to miss. Of course I took his offer and we began our hike further up the mountain.
As we walked ever upwards the oxygen level lowered and it became increasingly difficult to breathe, a fact that was compounded by Manuél's rapid pace, he was a machine and rarely needed to stop. During one much needed break we had the good fortune of observing a group of vicuñas (a deer like animal) crossing a scree slope. Seeing wild animals in their element always gives me a good feeling and I smiled as they disappeared over a ridge.
The landscape changed as we reached the snow level, the grass disappearing and leaving us on loose rocks heading up a steep path. After much sweating on my part, we reached the top of a ridge and Templo Machay came into view.
We began to traverse a steep scree slope as stones slipped beneath our feet. I stopped and laughed as Manuél's dog ran past my legs, jumped down part of the slope and ran back up again and off to wait outside the temple entrance, he was comfortably making a complete mockery of both of us and was apparently immune to the effects of altitude. We many careful steps we finally made it to the entrance of Templo Machay. The temple is situated at an altitude of 4650m and is a colossal rock which protrudes from the mountain and contains a large but short cave. We climbed inside this strange location, carefully navigating our way up a wet and rocky slope and up to a small shrine.
The shrine was an area cordoned off by a line of stones, inside which were some flowers, photos and mementos; a mixture of offerings and blessings to the mountain and those who had lost their lives on it. We stood quietly for a few minutes before leaving and heading back down to the alpacas and onwards to the community.
As we arrived on the outskirts of the community one of the girls ran towards out, shouting in Quechua to stop and speaking rapidly to Manuél when once we had met. He translated for me - we had lost 15 alpacas. I couldn't understand the confusion as to why were being held up if we had lost alpacas, if she knew they were lost, then clearly she knew where they were. Apparently they'd been spotted wandering in a different valley, far far away from where we had taken the others - oops...
As she had the ones we'd managed to lose back in the pen, she realised that holding us up was pointless and so we returned the remainder of the animals and counted all 102, phew! I then had to say a quick goodbye to everyone who was in close proximately as I had to quickly race to my house, grab my bag and jump on a bus to Rio Bamba in time to make a Skype date.
My first week in San Pablo had most certainly been a bizarre and surreal one, but it was also an absolutely fantastic one. Everyone had acted in an extremely friendly manner towards me, especially Juán and his family. I was looking forward to eating a decent meal that I wouldn't have to cook back in Rio Bamba, along with the opportunity to catch up on the world and my friends, but I was massively looking forward to returning the following week and was already contemplating the idea of extending my stay...