In May and June 2011, I spent a few weeks in what felt like a forgotten part of northern Ecuador – a mountainous rural zone called Intag on the edge of a cloud forest. I pillaged the emails I wrote home to friends and family at the time for the posts here.
As with every Sunday, we squeeze in to the back of the community milk truck with grannies, children, a dog, urns full of hand-drawn fresh milk, and anything/one else needing transporting to the village. For the locals, Sunday in Cuellaje was The Main Social Event of the week; for us it was a chance to write home. Hard to believe the place had internet – when we’d first arrived before moving to the even more remote farm that became our home, we were astounded the village even had electricity!
We bump down the hilly mud paths, giggles and shouts as things and people bounce around and nearly out. Despite the moist and muddy setting, everyone looks at their best, defying the six other days of the week where it’s impossible to be anything but filthy, us included – we spend most of our time running, jumping, climbing trees with the kids from the school I’ve been teaching at and of our host family.
The family we live with are a young cattle farming couple and their two daughters, 8 and 10, doing well for themselves compared to neighbouring farming families struggling to get by with up to 9 children. The six of us – the family, my travel buddy and I – squeeze into their two bedroom bungalow which sits at the side of the mud road. It’s made of breeze block with mostly concrete flooring inside, and a kind of shed attached at the back with a mud floor where food is kept for the animals (and us) and a cooking fire occasionally is occasionally lit. Normally, though, they use the gas burner in the kitchen – cum dining area cum entrance to the house.
There can only be three other farmhouses within 1km but we can’t see them; just beautiful hilly surroundings. We are in a bubble of our family, the school, and the odd passerby, dog, visitor. The only gringo we see is when we tramp the kilometre or so up to the farm owned by Ned, the only native English inhabitant who settled as a farmer and then started the volunteer and eco-toursim project here. Almost total immersion then, and very much a different way and pace of life…
That week I had mostly been:
– dirty. Yes.
– wearing wellies – because of the mud, of course, and rain..
– ..getting rained on – being in a cloud forest means that it’s a pretty wet and humid place and we arrived at the tail end of the wet season.
– riding to school in the mornings on the back of a motorbike with the engine switched off to save petrol as it’s all downhill. Other modes of travel have included the milk truck – of course – or a cattle wagon, for long journeys to the village, horse, mule, quad bike, or just our legs.
– getting up at 6am and going to bed before 9pm. As farmers, our host parents get up at 5am to milk the cows, and get all their work in before it gets dark at 6pm-ish. Being on the equator, these hours of light and dark are the same year round.
– sleeping in a fleece, down jacket and socks. Partly because it was a bit cold but mostly to stop the damn ‘no see-ems’ munching my feet and ankles and arms – tiny little bastard flies that bite A LOT but you NEVER catch them in the act!
– trying to keep out the millions of actual visible flying insects that want to get into the bedroom at night, including a moth the size of a sparrow – not a joke.
– spotting tiny bright black grasshoppers. Hundreds of them, everywhere (except in our bedroom – the only insects that aren’t!). They don’t seem to have the common grass or mud-coloured variety here.
– watching animated barbie films over and over and over… Thanks to living with an 8 and a 10 year old. It’s helping our Spanish though, so..
– ..getting a bit better in Spanish – yay!
– doing the washing up with a child’s sock. It being the preferred implement is somewhat representative of the kitchen situation as a whole – not a sterile aesthetic environment, but one that prioritises the storage and preparation of food, a proportion of which comes from the immediate environment. To be blunt, my old food tech teacher would have kittens over the dirt and grime! We won’t dwell on that side of things, rather, let’s talk about…
Things I’m getting used to:
– Eating shedloads of rice.
– Eating shedloads of rice and potatoes – now a totally normal combination on a plate. Or rice with any of a seemingly infinite variety of tuber/root/potato vegetable they have here. Still can’t get my head round pasta and potatoes though.
– Using corn for feeding everyone and everything in more ways than my imagination had ever previously stretched to: dry and crunched up with hot milk; ground up into a paste and cooked in its own leaves to make a sweet or savoury cake; toasted and salted; rubbed and boiled so it inflates twice the size; boiled and eaten with fresh cheese; used to feed the pigs; used to feed the chickens… tons and tons of it.
– Eating fruit that we don’t even have names for.
– Drinking hot fresh milk.
– The new, quieter cockerel as we ate the one that used to wake us up! Bit of shocker when the mum told us he was in the soup we had one evening. I think he was getting on a bit, though. And he really was very noisy.
– Drinking boiled water that tastes like the pot we boil it in. As for the water situation, then…
There’s no hot water. None. Not a drop. Water to the house is sourced from the nearby river, and there is no system to heat it so it is Mountain Fresh. I might be going on a bit about the dirt thing but we really are chuffing mucky. Because, of course, it’s not fun having cold showers. I realise that a warm shower is such a pleasurable thing, and being able to have one every day and be clean, such a privilege. Probably, if only cold water existed in the world, we wouldn’t waste so much of it as the bathing rate would dwindle from every day to every other (or three or four!) days. Going on from this…
I’ve seen that cleanliness and hygiene, do not – of course! -, have a universal standard. When you work outside in the mud or dust and you get dirty just by stepping out of the shower, and when washing clothes is hand-grinding time-consuming work, what’s the point in making yourself clean too often? Here, walking down the road you get dirty; sitting down, eating, picking up a bag, you get dirty; boiling a pot of water, YOU GET DIRTY. You may as well keep your clothes on for a few days running, including sleeping in them, and have a shower for special occasions, like Sundays, when you go into the village.
So this is where we find ourselves. Everyone trying to up their Sunday best appearance as we cling to the sides of the milk truck, rattling, rolling and windswept past farms and lush, hilly fields
I’m looking forward to having Cuellaje’s concrete under my feet for a little while, a home-made fruit ice cream, and writing home about all this different wonderfulness.