Sunday, September 27, 2009

El Pucara De Rumicucho

Incan ruins (possibly on top of pre-Columbian ruins)!
(Below) The valley the ruins look out over. We're near La Mitad del Mundo, at the end of Quito's sprawl. Look how dry the area is. Interestingly, there are a lot of acia trees that remind me of the route out to Mombasa in Kenya. Most of the flat fields you can see are corn fields, and all of the houses are cement brick.
On top of the walls (that have been restored) there's a lot of pumice stone, which is a volcanic rock that is full of air and weighs next to nothing.

What used to be Hacienda Mulaucu

Yesterday, our family went on a tour of one of the farms that provides produce and milk products to my grandparents' CSA (Community Supported Agriculture-a group of people who support local farms and receive regular baskets of products.)

The farm is part of what used to be one of the huge Haciendas, perched between deep quebradas (ravines). Back in the day, Ecuador was full of Haciendas like this one, which was more than a thousand acres and "owned" towns full of people. By now, most have been divided up, and some have even returned property to the local people. We ate lunch in one of the big old houses, which is now falling apart, but still very beautiful with white plastered walls, neat old doors, tiled roofs, and a big open courtyard. It could have been a museum with all the old furniture and door nobs, but people still work and stay there. (Below is the cute little kitchen, what lights they have area all solar powered)In this case, part of the hacienda (over two hundred acres) is still in the family, actually owned by an uncle in the States and operated by his brother and niece. The brother had been mainly cattle farming for years, and had soon depleted the soil completely. Also, a lot of the property had lava or stone very close to the surface which became exposed, and therefor unproductive. So, the niece (the woman who gave us the tour) who studied ecology in school and was a total convert to sustainable and regenerative farming practices began working with her dad to heal this piece of land and transform it into an incredible example of beautiful alternative farming.

One of the great things we saw in practice were rotational grass-farming techniques (if any of you have read , The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, or heard of Joe Salatin of Polyface farm - is right a long those lines.)

Essentially what I mean by "grass-farming techniques" is methods of working to revitalize pastures in a way that produces healthy soil, animals, and grass. In action, this involves series of short visits by many different animals across a field in certain rotations. For example, maybe fifteen cows would cross the field first, pooping and eating the grass in a way that does not rip it up from the roots. Then, groups of twenty or so chickens (in five or six little chicken tractors, shown above) are moved daily in patterns across the field, sorting through the cow poop and taking out parasites. Then next, maybe pigs would be sent across to turn the chicken droppings (high in nitrogen) and the cow poop into the ground while loosening compacted soil. And so on.
Along with great animal husbandry practices and grass-farming, they were also doing some beautiful vegetable farming. In several lots, they were employing permaculture practices, experiments, and great composting methods to beautiful results. Growing everything from carrots to spiky trees from the Oriente (jungle), they had several different kinds of raised beds, companion planting trials, and aromatic pest control. It was great to see.Lastly, something exciting to me, was the somewhat radical (by Ecuadorian standards) way the niece's little family functioned. Here's a picture of the dad (her husband) carrying their (eight-month old) baby on his back! He was a super loving dad, and after mentioning my studies in midwifery, he got really excited and told me that I have to visit the little clinic where they had their birth. They had a beautiful water birth, and he caught his son in his hands. He kept telling me, it was just so amazing. Moments like those make my day.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

La Mama Negra

It is with great sadness that I report that the camera that I took with me on this adventure was stolen, thus there are no pictures.

La Mama Negra is, in fact, two festivals back to back -- each one put on by a rival church in the town of Latacunga, about 90km south of Quito. I went to the first one (which claims to be the original, and is put on by the people), which started Wednesday evening and ended Friday morning. The next one began Friday evening and will end on Sunday.

Though the distance is not far, the trip from one end of Quito to the other by itself took over an hour, though it only cost 50cents. From the southern end of the city, I got on a great bus decked out with figurines of Jesus and Che Guevara, blasting some terrible 90's rock. We tore down the road and were in Latacunga by mid-afternoon. I got off the bus, grabbed my backpack, headed past the teaming main market, asked for directions, and arrived at my hostel to the ringing of church bells.

There, I met Sam, a friend of a friend, who was to be my fabulous festival partner. The first thing we did was go up to the roof of the hostel, climb over a wall and up onto the roof of a building under construction, from which you could see Cotopaxi in all her splendor (the giant mountain, to which La Mama Negra is dedicated, and for which the province, of which Latacunga is the capital, is named.) You could also see the town spread out below, bedecked in red tile roofs and topped off by steeples.

The first parade started soon after, and we were ready. Perched on the curb, surrounded by little kids and elderly ladies, we watched as first the bands, then the dance troops, and then the crazy masked and costumed characters began to flood down the street. Bright flags and streamers hung down above the narrow roads, each end attached to the sides of white plastered buildings.

Trumpets blared, angels and demons rode by on horseback, white bird-men danced around and battered you with their wings, shamans came by and "cleansed" you with spit, alcohol, herbs, and sticks, and vendors strolled around selling deep-fried pig skins in sheets. There were military bands, bus company bands, family bands, town bands, church bands, and school bands. There were dancers dressed in traditional clothes, in bright ponchos, in sandals, in elaborate hats, in white robes, in yellow dresses, with face paints, with masks, with sashes, and jugs of juice and alcohol. There were people whistling, singing, praying, yelling, and shooting off guns. There were tourists taking pictures and people joining the parade.

There were old men dancing and young men carrying giant offerings to Cotopaxi. These offerings were giant cooked pigs on stakes, attached to a round base. Attached to the pig and the base were staked chickens, rabbits, qui, bottles of liquor, packs of cigarettes, pictures of the Virgin Mary, Ecuadorian flags, fruit, and the occasional soccer team logo. I can't imagine that any of these giant constructions weighed much less than I do. Behind the sweating, painted, costumed man carrying these offerings, came a troop of supporters. One carried a small table, which every five minutes or so would be placed right under the bottom of the offering so that the carrier could rest with the table taking the weight of the offering. The others would be other men in matching costumes (who mostly either looked concerned, were dancing enthusiastically, or were helping the carrier, and everyone in the area, get (more) drunk) or the mom/sister/wife who carried a jug of water.

And, of course, there was La Mama Negra. An important (authority) figure in the town, dressed as a large black lady, with an elaborate wig and matching baby doll, who rode around with no apparent concern for the direction of the parade and squirted people with sour milk and foul alcoholic beverages.

The parade went all over one part of town, making a circle, and ending up a little after dark in the square where it began. Sam and I made some friends, and after a short wait, they took us to the park down the street where we witnessed, at close proximity, an incredible fireworks display. If you have never seen fireworks in Ecuador, one of the favorite ways to set them off is by making a giant bamboo contraption, where after the bottom fuse is lit, it starts a chain reaction of sparks that light other fuses so that soon the whole contraption is one big burning, sparking, booming, colorful, spinning mass that sometimes ends in a tremendous shower. It was spectacular.

The next day after (well, really it started during, competing with) a mass and a reenactment of something to do with two Mama Negras, military men, priests and flowers, there were two more parades, which got progressively crazier and more outlandish. The first went all the way up to the top of the big hill, and we met it half-way back down, on the steep cobble-stone street. The endurance of the dancers and musicians was amazing. The sun was hot and the crowd boisterous. People come from all over the country for this, and they were there to party.

Sam and I made some more friends and were kindly invited back to someone's house for lunch. It turns out, it was a lunch for some of the dancers, and after we finished some tasty soup and a huge plate of rice and chicken, we were pulled into an impromptu dance party. Complete with a band. Free lunch and dancing with a family of strangers might be one of the best things that can happen to poor traveling college students.

After lunch, which was actually late afternoon, we went to the main big plaza of the town to wait for the next parade to go by. It turned out to be a longer wait than we had anticipated, but it was still festive and our friends had a good time asking us questions about ourselves and teaching us words in Quichua.

By the time the parade finally got to us, it was getting dark and chilly. Nonetheless, there were hundreds of people on the street and the noise was unbelievable. Men in dresses, wigs, and masks, went around actually whipping the crowd to keep them out of the way of the dancers, and other men in costume came around giving out Loas. Loas are poems like limericks that rhyme and are usually crude and funny. After they give you your Loa (which is supposed to be made up on the spot) they douse you in, and often make you drink, aguariente -- a type of moonshine. Please picture Sam (who is tall, blond, and blue eyed) and me standing in a crowd of Ecuadorians. Boy did we stand out. By the end of the night, we were both covered in bad milk, nasty moonshine, spit, beer, and other assorted "cleansers". Imagine how we smelled. Still, we had a good time, and made it safely back to our hostel, to the relief of the kind ladies who ran it.

Friday morning we bought bread filled with cheese and a large cup of freshly squeezed orange juice and had breakfast on the roof. We heard the military band playing all sorts of songs, including the national anthem, in the main square, and what sounded like a hundred children singing out from behind a school wall. We parted ways after crossing the river on the edge of town, and I caught the bus back to Quito, arriving home after lunch in dire need of a shower.

Llano Grande

One beautiful morning, when snow capped mountains towered wreathed in thin white clouds, my Grandad took my dad and me to Llano Grande. In the early 1940's, the Church of the Brethren started a mission in this little community, and through that mission and the resulting establishment of a church, my grandparents (who were Protestant missionaries in a different community) became friends with some of the community members. Through these networks, now decades strong, my Grandad heard of this little farm of people interested in growing organic food.

The farm started out with some twenty members, but it is now down to four hardworking, enthusiastic souls. They explained to us their challenging history, beginning with a mediocre training by the town which taught them how to plant, but not in rotation, nor sustainable methods of harvesting and marketing. They had to experiment to figure out alternatives to chemicals to deal with pests, how to keep the neighbors' dogs and chickens out, that fresh manure on beds results in grubs, and the best ways to irrigate.
Upon our visit, the place looks beautiful and vibrant, especially compared to the sad, dry fields of monoculture corn and pig houses that neighbor their small plot.

They have a detailed rotation, so that each bed goes through a cycle of leafy greens, root vegetables, and nitrogen-fixing plants. As everything is seeded and harvested, they record it all in a large binder (below), which will also serve to prove the years that they have been fully organic. They need to be fully organic for at least three years to get certified.
One of the most important things these folks are working on, is creating and nurturing high-quality soil. Along with several kinds of good manure, they have a huge compost set-up in the woods down the road. (Below is my Grandad, and two of the four members, admiring some rich black compost.)
Below is the little dog that followed us around. They told me he's the watch dog these days. He watches out for spare scraps of food.

On our way out, we saw fields covered in white feathers (below). Why would you cover your fields in feathers? and where would you get so many feathers?? Well, you would cover your fields with feathers because they provide nitrogen and calcium to your soil when they decompose (if they don't all fly away, and after they smell horrific.) And in Llano Grande, there's a big chicken production business, so what's left...lots of chicken feathers.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Goat Poop

Above: farming on contour! on steep mountain sides! onions, tree tomatoes, and hot peppers by a big avocado tree.
Below: a hillside covered in cabuyas. This native plant can also be found in Mexico, can be "milked" for its sweet sap, used for compost, made into twine, and used for firewood.
After our visit to Yachana Wasi, Diego took us up the side of the mountain to Don Virgilio's goat pen. There were actually three pens; one for all the sheep, their lambs, the goats, and their kids, one for the big papa pig, and one for the mama sow and her piglets. Cute and super smelly.

Also at the pens, were a group of women from Llano Grande, part of an organic gardening coop, there to collect good goat poop. They told me that this poop helps produce the sweetest, tenderest lettuce. It was this impressive group of women who we had come to join in our personal quest for manure.

The manure of the goats and sheep (below) was shoveled into these sacks (above).

And then, one by one, these 75lb bags were carefully carried down on bent backs. I think I made two trips before wiping out. These women (and my dad) did trip after trip until all 83 sacks were piled at the bottom of the hill ready to be picked up by a big truck.

Above: Don Virgilio and Mercedes (kind of the leader of the group of women), counting sacks.

Yachana Huasi

This morning, my Grandad took my dad and me out to the northern end of town, near La Mitad Del Mundo (The Middle of the World - or the equator line). Off the highway and past the green jeep (those were the directions) we met Diego, a young alternative-living enthusiast who lives above Yachana Huasi (meaning in Quichua, "place of learning"). Yachana Huasi is technically a school (though it more resembles a museum) of native wisdom. Here they teach about traditional building methods, festivals, dances, music, art, farming, and medicine, probably among lots of other things. They also take their teachings into schools all around Quito.

Inside, the building is decorated with many artifacts and designs. Above is a Mayan calendar copied from one found in Mexico, that depicts a lot of the same imagery that is and has been important here; including the sun, native plants, and mother deities.

Outside, in the surrounding courtyard, they have a beautiful multi-functional, highly biodiverse garden, full of vibrant plants and interesting art. When they first arrived, not more than ten years ago, the place was barren and full of trash.

Diego and his family (his wife, 11-month old son, his sister, and three others) live in a gorgeous house they built above the school, which is made from mostly natural and recycled materials. My favorite part were their windows made of old bus windshields. He and his wife, Andrea, served us a tasty chocolate and maize drink in beautiful gourd bowls and biscuit-like things, fresh off an open fire in an intricate stone and adobe fireplace in their main room. Everything in the house felt designed with intention, and I admired greatly the ambition and commitment shown by this small community to living a radical life outside this country's growing culture of consumerism and industrialism.

Widening Our Horizons

On Saturday, my family drove out to a little town called Tingo. We took a right up the hill at the central square and drove up to the little church -- Iglesia San Jose -- pictured here below. Leaving our car looking small and vulnerable, we took a wide dirt path that wound up behind the church.

The wide dirt path became a skinny snaking ravined one, which zig-zagged its way up the mountain side. We were on our way up mountain Ilalo.

At the top of Ilalo, which you can see almost as soon as you leave the center of Quito, is a giant cross. My dad and youngest brother, Caleb, made it to the top, where they had a spectacular view of the valley below.

My mom and I rejoined them at the center square at the base, having had the festive opportunity to witness a wedding party pile into the backs of several pick-up trucks and caravan their way out of town.

I enjoy short field trips like this for two reasons:

One- I am stretching my boundaries, both physically and otherwise. My lungs have not yet fully adjusted to this high altitude, so climbing is an exercise in patience as well as for my lungs.

Two- I get to practice my observation skills. What plants can grow at this altitude? how do farmers grow those potatoes on such a steep slope? how can I adjust my sight to the immense distance I can suddenly see? what birds do I hear? How has water shaped this landscape? wind? fire? people?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I'll take that papaya for 50cents, and why don't you throw in those bananas too, and we'll call it an even 80cents.

This morning after pancakes, Grandpa and I went to a market in the northern end of Quito. It was huge; full of grains and beans, smells, ripe fruits, dripping fish, flailing crabs, pig heads, ava pods, brown eggs, bright eyed children, and all sorts of other things.

This is a simple motorized grain grinder. You could get a whole variety of fresh flours, from normal whole-grain to purple maiz. You are encouraged to dip your finger tip in and try them.
Along with all the beauty of fresh fruits and vegetables, there were several stalls selling every part of a pig or cow you could ever imagine eating. You could also buy live crabs (poor things, we are not close to the coast here in Quito), several kinds of silvery fish, and coagulated blood for soups.
A young woman was trying to convince these goats to go one way or another, but they were really just interested in the vegetable debris on the ground. She told Grandpa how much fresh milk was, but we didn't get any.
Unlike the States, here you can find many many varieties of beans, corn, grains, and roots (like potatoes and native carrot-like tubers.)As my grandfather pointed out, markets are interesting places to study sociologically. Have you ever wondered how there could be fifty stalls all selling the exact same thing? Why doesn't one person just buy up all the potatoes and open a potato store? It seems, there is something very important that communities gain from markets. The discussions about the food, the interactions between people who otherwise would not interact, the producer to buyer connection? What are we really losing in the States every time we buy our lettuce at a big chain grocery store?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


In the absence of thrilling activities, as I work hard to get a paper done on time, I wanted to share with you some pictures of where we are. Actually, we are living in the middle of the city, but I meant in the broader scope of things. So, below are some pictures of the more rural parts of Ecuador. Of particular note are the distinctive curved red roofing tiles, the towering heights of the mountain Cayambe with sheep grazing in the foreground, the patchwork nature of a farmed valley, and in general (which is also true in the city) the great expanse of sky.