Monthly Archives: July 2016

Waterfalls and Llamas

July 24
San Rafael Falls

As promised, Sandra and a driver picked us up at 630 am. We grabbed leftover cake for breakfast and said goodbye to our last minute host, Alicia. In the light, it was clear how beautiful her home was, and similar in size to a modern large house in Canada.

As the six of us had slept in two singles and a double, there was a lot of tossing and turning. No one admitted to it, but everyone was tired. During the day, Aubrey read most of the first Harry Potter book out loud. Teva, who has decided he would be in Hufflepuff due to his loyalty, was quite the trooper despite feeling quite unwell from the start. Early on, we had to make a couple of sudden vomit pit stops, but he managed to participate in the whole day, with a lot of lying down, crackers, and fluids.

After spending a week with Sandra, a multi-talented young woman who was our facilitator through the jungle, we had discussed with her visiting two beautiful waterfalls near her home. We could also visit her llamas and her mama. We were excited about taking the city bus, but the four hour drive and a few destinations led to her arranging a more efficient mode of transport via minivan and driver. Plus we could give her a lift home as well.

So the drive into the cloud forest near Baesa was beautiful again. We could clearly see many volcanoes and mountains around Quito, and the vistas and waterfalls as we climbed into the mountains and back down on the other side were numerous and natural.

We hiked 1.5 km to see the powerful force of the 160 metre drop of the San Rafael Falls. The water shot off the surface of the river like an explosion and became mist part way to dropping to the ground around. The hills and forest around were spectacular. Unfortunately, a new hydroelectric project (to replace dependence on oil revenue) plans to divert forty percent of the water from upstream to a place far away from the nearby active volcano. Very soon this waterfall may never look the same again.

We stopped for lunch a roadside truck stop where the menu is chicken with rice, chicken soup, or rice with egg and potato. She sold out with our eight meals. It was plentiful, tasty, and the total was thirty dollars. And the food went a long way towards minimizing the ridiculous car conflicts between a few of the boys.

The Magic Falls was a shorter waterfall with a shorter hike. We were prepared to get wet, as this time, instead of a lookout from above and across the valley, we were able to walk right up the base of the falls. Or at least as close as felt safe. The water was falling with such power that a strong wind was created, jettisoning the water droplets outwards along the ground. It was hard to get close due to the winds, but even within 100 metres, it was cold and wet. We were prepared and the boys much enjoyed getting soaked and then swimming against the river flow a few hundred metres downstream.

It was getting late, so we drove Sandra, who had all day been a great source of information, back to her home. We briefly played with her four llamas and met her mother, before Milton drove us home to our apartment again.

Even though it started as a horrible day for Teva, by the end of the drive, even he felt we had had an awesome day. Tomorrow night we fly home. If only we can get Teva’s stomach settled first.

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Adios Amazon

July 23

We got up earlier than usual to make sure we were packed and ready to go before breakfast. Sandra and Koren before breakfast finally played and sang the Ecuadorian song learned and practiced diligently daily at Minga Lodge. We said our last thank yous and goodbyes to the great support staff and headed for our 90 minute canoe ride downriver to catch our plane back to Quito.

We glided (in our motorized gargantuan canoe) past mostly secondary forest and tiny communities along this previously isolated river and jungle region, until we reached the large city of Coca, apparently still deep in the Amazon. Reflecting on our week in the Amazon, we learned so much from the community we worked with, both in the village and as a group of travellers. We really enjoyed meeting the other two families and working with them as a team. It was difficult to say goodbye to everyone, but we believe our connection will not end here.

After the short flight to Quito, immediately feeling the head and breathing pressure of the high altitude again, our group took a walking tour around a few important churches and Squares in Old Town of Quito, the first city to be designated a world heritage site. We got to hear not only about the Spanish Catholic building wonders, but also about the manner in which the street of the seven crosses actually used the Native peoples’ road from the sacred Sun God vista to the Moon God vista and placed churches all along the route as part of the conversion coercion. We viewed an active church and monastery, complete with a huge religious art collection, many courtyards, prisoner parrots with clipped wings to prevent flight, and a gilded cathedral with a ceiling made with thousands of interlocking wood pieces (no nails or glue used). They had to decommission the organs to keep the ceiling intact. Outside, a metro is being built, ensuring the buildings and bricks are preserved. So, the bricks of the old market, over 300 years old, were numbered prior to their temporary removal for the construction.

Koren checked email around 4:30pm to find out that our accommodation was no longer available for that night, and we were suddenly scrambling to figure out where we were going to sleep. After a lot of back and forth, the people who were originally renting the apartment to us found us another accommodation (a computer glitch on their end was responsible for the error, sparing you the details). Finally, we arranged for transportation to take us to the new mystery location after a nice local dinner, as it was on the outskirts of town.

Our driver had a little difficulty finding the place, but we made it. The owner of the house immediately welcomed us with open arms, even though she did not speak any English. Somehow we understood she was in the middle of a baptism party and we were welcome to join them. They were celebrating the baptism of their 10 month old granddaughter, Sol. Their house was full of people dressed in fancy clothes. We had come directly from the Amazon, and were feeling a bit tired and dishevelled, but she insisted we come and join the party.

There was a tent set up in the backyard, there were two family members playing beautiful Spanish guitar and people were singing along. Everyone was in a great mood and welcomed us warmly, offering us food and drink. After we were introduced to a few dozen people, Aubrey excused himself to start putting kids to bed while Koren attempted to make conversation in Spanish with some of the family. Koren joined the party by pulling out the music to the one Ecuadorian song she had just learned. When she picked up the guitar and started to play, a relative recognized the song and sang along, and then others joined in as well. Practicing that song all week came in handy. To say that the family was surprised is an understatement. They were disappointed she did not know any other Spanish songs but then requested Father and Son by Cat Stevens. After that, we sat back and listened to the wonderful Spanish Music, and sang along with the English songs they played and sang.

It turns out some of the family members were in an alternative rock back that has quite a following in Ecuador. In fact, the father of the baby baptized was one of the founding members, but he is taking a break because his three kids are so young. His brother-in-law is still in the band, called “Nonmind”. You should check them out on YouTube and iTunes. In the family sing-a-long, English selections included Pink Floyd, Nirvana, Guns N Roses, Tracy Chapman, and an eclectic mix of other songs. It was a lot of fun. The skill in the room was quite evident, even with so much alcohol flowing.

Koren reluctantly went to bed around 11:15 (Aubrey had excused himself earlier to ensure kids were asleep as we had already planned a 630 am pick-up), but the party went on long afterwards with raucous singing. The warmth and hospitality of this wonderful family was really special, especially as we were invited to crash their family party. The magic of travel is often most evident when things do not work out as planned but often work out better than planned.

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Last Day in Bellavista

July 22

This morning we woke up with a lot of mixed emotions. We had requested to leave earlier than usual for Bellavista so we could get more done on our last day. We were excited and eager to work, but we were feeling sad knowing it was our last day. It’s hard to believe that we leave Minga Lodge tomorrow. One bonus was that we got to go back to Bellavista in the afternoon to visit their women’s group.

We arrived at the build site very motivated. It was hot and humid, but we were determined to finish some of the tasks we started. Instead of working with rebar, we were assigned a new task of sawing boards and nailing them together to make a mold for the concrete pillars which will hold up the computer lab. Koren was a bit over enthusiastic and bent one of their saws. She did learn the error of her ways and modified her sawing technique.

Aubrey was back on the cement crew, mixing over two loads of concrete. Once mixed, the concrete was then hauled over to and poured into the foundation. Once several loads of rocks were added and the foundation smoothed and pressed, another foot of the foundation was complete. Last, we poured a wetter concrete into the freshly cut and nailed into place wooden box surrounding the rebar towers. When the concrete reached the top of the box, the first concrete pillar was wet but completed. A few small goals and milestones were reached for our group during our week here, all of which is a small but essential part of the bigger project of the computer lab. We all contribute essential or important pieces of a larger puzzle.

Everyone, including the kids, took turns hauling bags and wheelbarrows of sand from the pile by the water. By the end of the day, except for a layer covering the grass, the load from the two canoes had been moved to the build site.

When our work shift was over, all of us, and the community members in the Minga, stood in a circle and exchanged thoughts through a translator of what this week meant to all of us. We, the voluntourists, were totally inspired by the community members and their commitment to making changes to help the children in their community thrive. They had to sacrifice a lot of time, energy and materials to join in this partnership with Free the Children, but they knew it was going to be worth it. They welcomed us, were patient with our lack of skills and knowledge, and let us be a part of their Minga, their team. This work together is something we will always treasure.

After lunch, we returned to Bellavista to meet the women in the alternative income project group. They showed us how they extract the fibres from local pineapple-like plants and turn them into thread. The dried and dyed thread is used with natural seeds to make jewelry, baskets and other handmade items. We were invited to make our own macrame bracelets, with their help. When we finished the two activities, they presented a traditional dance and then invited us to join them. We all had a great time dancing to the Kichwa music with the community members, some of whom we had been working with on the build site all week.

Getting back in the canoe was hard because we knew it was the last time we would see everyone. When we returned to Minga, we visited the brand new (air-conditioned) store filled with Ecuadorian handicrafts, including those made in Bellavista.

After dinner we were treated to a dynamic show put on by a local family. They dressed in traditional Amazonian costumes and explained some of their ancient traditions through music and dance. The dancing was incredibly lively and the costumes and makeup were quite elaborate. The performers were all in the same family, the grandparents and even one of the granddaughters was in the show. At the end, we all joined them, and had another big dance party. It was hot and humid, and it was hard to believe they were able to keep up that level of dynamic dancing for an hour and a half. We were all exhausted after just one song.

Every day, we share in a ritual of relating our own highlights of the day. Tonight we also shared our highlight of the trip. Much was said of the impact of working with the Bellavista community and with each other.

We ended the day with a “Happy” song with new camp-style lyrics directed at Sandra, Kristin, and Miguel. We said some goodbyes and looked forward to our long canoe ride down river to the airport in the morning.

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A Visit with a local Healer

July 21

This morning we stopped at the local Thursday market in Los Rios. We arrived close to 10am so many of the stalls had already closed or were closing up. There was an interesting selection of fruits, vegetables, handicrafts, clothes, shoes and other things useful for the house. After listening to a few of the tracks, we bought a CD of Kichwa pop music recommended by our build site coordinator, Ismael, ostensibly based on her appearance on the cover.

Then we headed back to Bellavista. The kids played a long game of soccer with the local kids. Unfortunately, the North American kids were wearing rubber boots, which resulted in a couple of nasty blisters for Erez. The adults got right to work, Koren carrying bags and wheelbarrows of sand, Aubrey trying almost all of the jobs. Rebar was cut, bent, tied, then the rebar pillars were cemented into place for the foundation. We have all gotten a bit of a rhythm going and look forward to the work. After the soccer game, the kids joined the work team once again. It was hot, and we all felt as though we had earned our showers and lunch.

Today was a bit of a rough day for Teva, who was feeling under the weather almost the entire day. He took a shower and a nap over lunch hour, and luckily was able to join the group for our afternoon activities. Water and sleep seemed to help him back to himself by dinner.

We took a short canoe ride down river to visit the home of Jose, a local community member who serves as a part-time traditional healer. He was chosen to succeed his father-in-law, who was a healer and a Shaman. He was very reluctant, but at thirty-five finally committed to studying the ancient knowledge of traditional plants in the jungle so it would not be lost completely. For forty years, he was a reluctant healer and only treated his family. Three years ago he healed two ill village children and word got out that he possessed this knowledge. He then began to function as a healer for the community. He also shared his knowledge with tourists who visit two of the local lodges, including Minga where we staying.

Jose is very soft spoken and patiently answered all of our questions. He then did a cleansing ceremony for everyone in our group, in small groups. He lit a tube made of dried banana leaves stuffed with dried tobacco leaves, puffed on it, and blew the smoke all over the person he was “treating”. Then he blew some smoke into a bunch of two types of fresh leaves and waved them methodically around the head and body of each person. When he was finished, he shook the “bad air” away from the person before he moved on to the next patient. Each person took around 4-5 minutes.

It was mesmerizing. Our four boys went first, and we were amazed by how still and calm they were throughout the whole ceremony, sitting upright, eyes closed, palms up, for a full 20 minutes while the whole group was treated. It was a very interesting experience. After his treatment, Teva whispered to me that he no longer felt even a little bit sick.

After the ceremony, we went to Jose’s backyard, and Sandra explained some of the hunting methods used in the Amazon rainforest, including letting us use a blow gun. Chicken and a rooster crowed and raced around the yard.Only one person in our whole group, Mike, managed to hit the target (a small papaya), but everyone did a great job blowing the “curare” blow darts.

The Minga and Free the Children (involving a fair bit of our own child labour) portion of our trip is nearly over. The three families are getting along great and break time is now spent socializing as a group. Tomorrow is our last day in the Amazon.

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A Day in the Life…

July 20

A busy day

It rained from yesterday afternoon straight through till morning. More importantly, it also rained up in the mountains, so the water level of the river rose dramatically. Throughout our travels on the river, we saw loads of wood debris floating downstream including fully grown trees. The temperature also dropped considerably after the rain, making it the coldest day the Me to We country director has experienced in the four years he has been here in the Amazon. Which means some of us wore long sleeves for part of the day.

Our first activity today was visiting our adopted village, Los Rios. It is one of Free the Children’s newest partnerships. They have one new classroom and are in the midst of setting up the water system. They are eager to build more classrooms, so we think Zev made a great choice for his Bar Mitzvah project. There is a lot to be done here. It was quite amazing to see the new classroom compared to the old classrooms that are still in use. As expected, every class wants to be in the “new” classroom. We didn’t get to meet any of the students as it is summer vacation. We did however meet the “inspector” of the school. She said there are 54 families in the school – 110 students and 13 teachers.

Next stop was Bellavista to return to work. We wasted no time getting down to business. One crew was continuing the job of cutting, bending, and tying the rebar. Another group was given the job of manually mixing, carrying and pouring cement for the support pillars. The third group continued the job of filling and then hauling bags of sand and gravel the 440m from the top of the river bank to the build site. It was a shorter day, but we got quite a bit accomplished.

After lunch we took a short boat ride across the river to Miguel and Maria Vargas’ farm. He originally came from the Highlands of Ecuador to visit his sister when he was only 19 years old. At that time, the government was interested in settling people in the Amazon to strengthen its claim to the area, due to a conflict with Peru. He bought a farm, but it was 2 km away from the Napo River. It had fresh water but was difficult to get produce to market. He would have to get up at 2am to start transporting produce 2 km to the river, where he would wait for the transport (canoe) to come. Sometimes, the canoe would already be full from other farmers, so he would have to wait until the next day. It was quite difficult. He went to back to the Highlands to find a bride and brought Maria back to his farm in the Amazon. Their family grew, and as the family got older, it brought new challenges. The closest school was almost 3km away, so it was often difficult to get them to school everyday.

Finally, after six years, they decided the challenges were too great and decided to move back to the Highlands. Miguel’s sister talked them out of it. There was another farm for sale right on the river. It was also closer to the school. They sold their farm and bought the new land and started all over again. It solved many of their problems, and through hard work they established the new farm and were happy. There was one big problem still, as they no longer had access to fresh water. When one of their daughters was only 13 years old, she got very sick from the river water and died from her illness. This devastated the family. Miguel and some of his neighbours were inspired to go to Quito to demand access to clean water for the community. The authorities were very sympathetic and promised to send someone out to asses the situation and get them clean water. They went home and waited a week, two weeks, a month, and no one came. A couple of years later, they went again to Quito to ask for help. Again, there were promises made without any actual response.

In the meantime, the farm had been supplying produce to a lodge across the river. Then that lodge was purchased by Free the Children in 2012. Staff of the Minga Lodge visited the farm to introduce themselves and inquire about continuing to supply them with produce. They discussed his challenges in farming the area, and asked what they could do to help. He told them of the lack of access to clean water. Although there were no funds available yet, they offered to bring groups of tourists to tour his farm. A year later, they had funds for the first water project, however they needed the project to be close to the clinic and the school across the river, next to the lodge. He would have to travel a bit to get to the water source, but at least they would have clean water. Another year later, they initiated the second water project, and now he has access to clean water on his own property. He wife no longer had to carry 80 litres of water from the river to their home daily, and his family would no longer be risking their lives drinking the river water.

Senor Varga continues to have a nice partnership with Free the Children. He still gives tours to groups and sells fruits to the Minga Lodge. We were very inspired by his story and his beautiful spirit. We especially enjoyed spending time with his six year old grandson John who was so sweet. At one point during Miguel’s talk, John sat down beside Aubrey and happened to make a noise of pain. He seemed to be favouring a torn finger nail. Aubrey took out his pocket knife and used the nail cutters to trim the offending nail to John’s satisfaction, which led to the silent request for a full manicure, thus provided.

While we were there, in addition to telling us his story, Senor Vargas showed us around the farm, and we helped him and his family pick coffee beans. Every 100 pound bag, which takes one person a day to harvest, sells for ten dollars. The buyer roasts and shells the beans and sells a bag for thirty-five dollars. He also demonstrated how he harvests “hearts of palm”. Each palmito tree grows for a year before it is quickly hacked down with a machete to harvest the tender shoots inside the trunk. We all sampled some fresh hearts of palm immediately after felling the tree. We watched him take down three of these trees, one for us to eat, and two to fill an order for Minga Lodge. He sells them for $3 each. The most interesting and most profitable part of this process is how the trunk actually nets about fifty dollars from the sale of grubs used for respiratory illnesses. The palm leaves rest on the fallen and machete-notched trunk to attract a beetle. The larvae eat the more firm and inedible part of the heart of palm and grow to large grubs over time.

We ended the tour by sampling several of his fruits, mostly citrus and papaya. There was one interesting fruit that was not edible, but used for face painting. Sandra painted Zev with a powder from inside the hairy seed pod. It apparently stains whatever fabric it touches and will not come off easily. He was warned not to use the fluffy towels provided at Minga Lodge for fear of permanently staining them with red.

We returned for dinner and then went out for a night hike. The adults went with our guide Miguel, and the kids went with Sandra and Kristin. We saw a couple of snakes, two tarantulas, a Cayman, and several katydids by flashlight. The kids saw a tarantula and an eel and did cool activities like using birds of paradise flower shells to make themselves look like toucans. A great time was had by all.

Tomorrow after lunch we will be visiting a local shaman.
Water pillar once education solid and engaged

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Chocolate and Rain

July 19

This morning, in the rain (welcome to the rain forest), we began in earnest our work in the Bellavista community. Shortly after resuming our duties at the job site, involving rebar and rocks, we were informed of an opportunity for the adults to participate in a Minga. Joined by the community mingera and mingero, we headed back to the river to empty a canoe filled with dirt. Using a wheelbarrow, we had to bring the dirt out of the canoe and up a small hill. While several of the local women used baskets with straps across their foreheads to carry the dirt, we also formed an assembly line to move bags of dirt up the hill. The process was smooth but dirty in the rain.

Afterwards, we discovered the dirt pile next needed to be moved the 300 metres to the job site. So we all joined in, using the wheelbarrows, bags and baskets. Before the job was completed, as we were about to fill a wheelbarrow, the women indicated they preferred we brought the wheelbarrow back down the hill to the canoe. Another canoe had arrived filled with dirt. This time, we were so efficient with the wheelbarrows that the women stopped loading up separate baskets and stuck to helping guide the wheelbarrow to the top of the hill. We got the job done as we were leaving for lunch, everyone sandy, wet, and dirty.

It was wonderful to see us working seamlessly with the community minga members. Where we might have been merely in the way, clearly we were helpful. Hasty manyana. We return tomorrow.

After everyone cleaned up, the sun appeared and we missed the rain.

We visited the cocoa plantation of Senor Fabian. In place of secondary forest, he has planted 18000 grafted for cocoa trees (similar to the technique with apples, the trees stay shorter and produce more fruit close to the ground) on his farm. We learned how he takes the seed to tree to beans, sold within Ecuador and mostly to France. Unable to keep up with the demand with his own fields, he also buys fruit from local farmers at fifty cents USD per pound. He also buys the dried seeds at a dollar per pound. Once the seeds are fermented in large boxes over five days to remove the acidity and much of the bitterness, he is able to sell the beans for three Euros per pound. The government actually regulates the sales to ensure the quality remains high. It seems there also may be a new interest in making best in the world chocolate locally in Ecuador, such as in Mindo.

Miguel bought two pounds of the beans and roasted them over an open fire. We shelled them and ground them, extruding the chocolate paste. From dry beans to moist paste as the cocoa oil is released. It was remarkably bitter still. After adding some milk and sugar, we got a spoonful and tried adding various ingredients, such as vanilla, wine, cinnamon, chilli sauce, or more commonly sugar or honey. The flavour was strong and the bitterness was still tough to conceal. Maybe making chocolate is not so easy. We enjoyed the sunset and a rainbow as it began to rain again.

Koren had a highlight learning some Spanish songs from Sandra and Miguel, initially hearing some songs with simultaneous translations on the canoe and then later after supper working out some chords on a resident guitar.
Aubrey spoke after dinner with the young doctor responsible for the recently started health care pillar in the region (she and the new clinic started two months ago). She is excited about the prospects of bringing health care directly to many of the local and isolated communities in a sustainable manner.

Amazingly, it seems the adopt a village model by Free the Children, with the principles of community engagement, involvement, and personal investment, seems much the same as the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy that have become so essential to the practice of family medicine recently. They are exciting and effective for the same reasons, involving person- and community-centred decisions that are bound to have an impact by teaching and working toward independence, rather than externally solving problems and creating dependence.

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Minga Lodge and Bellavista

July 18
Minga lodge and Bellavista

Our routine for the rest of the week is a wonderful breakfast, including some familiar and local foods, then a motorized canoe ride to the community of Bella Vista for a few hours of construction, a return to the Minga Lodge for lunch, an afternoon activity, and then some time to relax and enjoy the sunset and the view before 6:30 dinner.

Breakfast today included tasty cooked and then smashed plantains (Teva mistook them for scrambled eggs) with a yoghurt sauce.

After breakfast, we were treated to a casual historical discussion (from one of the staff at the lodge who made relevant history very interesting) regarding the hacienda system in Ecuador. We learned about the forced taxes paid by the indigenous people to the Spanish and then eventually the forced labour indentured over time in order to avoid retribution by the land-, justice-, and church-controlling Spanish. The information was essential to our understanding of the context of the relationship of Free the Children with the local rainforest communities. We need to treat community members as people and not subjects for photographs. We need to get to know them, while helping with buildings projects. We will not provide any handouts. We need to be part of the solution, building relationships, and leaving the people with skills to continue further projects on their own in the future. At the end of the day, he specifically commented how meaningful our questions and engagement had been for him as well.

Bellavista is a tiny village upstream from Minga Lodge. A Minga is actually a local custom whereby local leaders will call together villagers to complete a community project. Free the Children has committed to their five pillars in adopting a village, and education is the first pillar completed always. But most important is community involvement and engagement in each project. So, the community must provide ten percent of the building supplies for the project and thus value the project.

Our role will be working on the library and computer room for the school. Five classrooms have already been completed and were in use this past school year. Working with the government, twelve teachers are here for the 120 students. The washrooms for the school are almost ready and will be ready for the next school year.

Although today our time at work was a brief introduction, we each did various jobs to cut, bend, or tie in place rebar for the foundation. Others moved rocks into position. It was certainly hot, even doing finesse work. Everyone is excited to get back to work tomorrow, especially now that we have started to get a feel for some of our tasks.

After lunch and a short break (to dry out or cool off), we hiked into the rainforest with Miguel as our guide. The kids all went with Sandra, following close behind. As we climbed to the top of the hill behind the lodge to a magnificent vista over the river, we listened to Miguel share his words of wisdom about the land and politics, the rainforest and the world. He is enthusiastic and engaging and a ton of fun. One very thin tall tree, smothered by a few different vines and elephant leaf plants, was an excellent example of symbiotic relationships. It highlighted the concept of love, sharing and understanding, where a plant operates for the greater good even in a relationship which would certainly eventually lead to self-destruction. If we all hold these three principles true, the world will be a great place for everyone.

We also learned about primary and secondary forest from Miguel. The primary forest is undisturbed and should stay that way. Secondary forest is naturally or unnaturally disturbed. The area we hiked was a coffee plantation until twenty years ago. The farmers were given land from the haciendas, but they were required to produce from the land. Once proven and deeds granted, the farmers farmed smaller sections of the forest plots, allowing the forest to regenerate. To us, the land was clearly forest, without evidence of the coffee farming, as twenty years was enough time for plenty of seeding from the primary forest. As well, some plants only grow in basic soil and convert the soil to a more neutral medium for the regrowth of the forest. After about eighty years, it can be considered primary forest again.

The trick is to sustainably use the secondary forest to allow more oxygenation of our world. Unlike in Brazil, where the forest is being clear cut to grow corn for profitable biofuels and thus ironically releasing fifty percent of the world’s carbon dioxide.

One amazing plant was the walking palm. The soil is only about 15 cm deep, above clay, gravel, and then millions of years of old limestone. Some of the palm have appendage-like roots that actually migrate over a few years towards light and away from cliffs.

Sandra engaged all of the kids in an art project based on their observations from the hike. The result was an art installation for dinner. She is also a wealth of knowledge and fun, even initiating a cake for Miguel’s birthday, and almost getting it in his face as he took the traditional first bite (not first cut).

Everyone is getting to know one another, the seven kids are all having fun, and we hope there will be a lot of impact on everyone from this experience. Certainly the tradition of everyone discussing a highlight of the day is a beautiful way of gauging day by day impact on each person. Some most enjoyed the boat ride and spending time with family, but we found it hard to pick between the historical talk, the volunteering, and the hike.

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Amazon Arrival

July 17

After a satisfying breakfast at the buffet, we began our full day trip by van to the Amazon, leaving at about 8:45. It was amazing to climb up to 4400 m at the highest point, with full views of some of the surrounding volcanos including the snow covered peak of Cotopaxi. Our driver stopped so we could take the requisite photos, and pointed out the smoke coming out of the top. It is recently active over the past fifteen months but hasn’t erupted in about 300 years

Then we slowly descended first to the cloud forest and gradually into the Amazon rainforest.
It was really interesting noticing the change in both vegetation and climate as we continued our journey. In the Quito area it is quite dry, and somewhat temperate, the cloud forest was still a bit cool, and as we got closer to the Amazon, the humidity rose. We opted not to use the air conditioning in the van, so we could open the windows. A few hours into our journey, we starting feeling cool drips of water on our heads. This was from the condensation forming on the ceiling of the van from the air conditioning.

We stopped for a very early lunch, as we made much better time than expected. We ate at Kopal Pizzeria in a town called Baese. It is owned by a Dutch ex-pat, and had truly delicious thin crust pizza and salads.

We travelled some of the time on beautifully paved roads, and other times on dirt roads full of puddles and holes. Our driver expertly navigated all of the obstacles. We arrived in excellent time to the shores of the Napo river, where we boarded a long canoe (including seats and a canopy overhead) with an outboard motor. After a beautiful 20 minute ride, we arrived around 4pm at Minga Lodge – a slice of paradise in the rainforest. We were welcomed with a snack of plantain chips with salsa and cool Guayusa Tea served in handmade ceramic cups. Women in the village wake up at 2am to start brewing the caffeinated tea so it can be served before work, to give the family energy and focus for the day.

We watched the sunset from a deck high above the Napa River, looking out over the Amazon and the sacred mountains in the distance, while we got to know some of the others in our group. We also met a hilarious photographer named Tony who is on assignment here. He will be hanging out with our group for part of our time here as well.

We had a wonderful dinner, some great conversations, and got to encounter the resident parrot named Yolanda. The boys were captivated by 3 large hairy spiders crawling on the rafters of the dining area, just a sample of some of the many creatures we will discover while we are here.

While unpacking, we heard a large crash on our roof, caused by a seed pod falling from the giant Ficus trees above our cabin. It sounds like a gunshot or a door slamming. And when they fall onto the ground, it sounds like an animal scurrying about. We hope that not too many fall in the night, or at least that no one wakes scared from the noises.

As expected, it is extremely humid. We will have to adjust to being wet the entire week we are here. Sitting in our room, surrounded by the orchestral sounds of the rainforest, we feel surprisingly at home, and are looking forward to travelling to our first community in the morning. We will be working on a build site for a computer lab/library project in a community about 45 minutes upstream.

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On the road again

July 16

We were not in a rush to do anything today. Everyone has a little bit of travel fatigue setting in. Today’s plan is just to get to our hotel, where we will meet up with our Me to We facilitators, and have a down day.

The home where we have been staying in Quito is owned by a lovely couple. The husband is a retired paediatrician and the wife has a hair salon in the building. Zev and I decided to tame our “fros” before heading into the Amazon. Ten dollars later, we both have extremely short hair and are both happy with our results. In addition to his office and her salon, their home has room for their two-storey apartment, an upstairs apartment for each of their two sons (although one lives ten months of the year in Miami), and the last apartment they rent out ever since their daughter married and moved out. Maria, and son-in-law Fredy, have been our tour guides for all three of our Quito-based trips. Our kids have had fun playing with the six grandchildren staying here. While Aubrey and Koren were packing up, the kids went to the neighbourhood park to play soccer. And the paediatrician reviewed Teva’s numerous pock marks and agreed they were bites.

Finally it was time to leave. We took our 6 small backpacks and walked about 15 minutes to the bus terminal, where after a bit of wandering around and asking different people directions, we found the bus going our way. Riding the bus was an experience. First, you always pay when you get off, not when you get on. There is one person whose job is to jump off the bus right before the stop, announce all the places they are going, punch in some type of time card at a nearby store or kiosk, and take money from people as they get off, providing change when needed.

Sometimes when we stopped, 2 or 3 people would hop onto the bus, trying to sell refreshments like chips, dried plantains, fresh fruit, beverages, and newspapers. Once, a man came on the bus, possibly to solicit money. Our Spanish is very rough, but it seemed he was sermonizing, something about having the love of God in your heart and pleading for money.

The staff on the bus were helpful, and told us which stop to get off. The ride was about an hour and 15 minutes, and it cost $2 total – for all 6 of us. Sure beats having to pay for two taxis to take us there! It could be said that one of the best things you can do to really get a sense of a place is to ride the local bus. The people watching is ideal, as one certainly gets a sense of what is normal in town. We especially enjoyed seeing the different towns we passed through on the way to our hotel stop. Because it is Saturday, we saw that some places had open air markets, selling food and clothing. We also saw people dressed up nicely, carrying bouquets of flowers, perhaps on their way to a family gathering. We even passed a wedding.

We made it safely to our hotel. It is very nice: Impeccably decorated, and the front staff presented us champagne flutes of refreshing narijilla juice blended with basil while we were checking in. We settled in, ate some of our packed sandwiches and then explored the facilities. Erez and Zev played 3 rounds of pool, while everyone else took advantage of the outdoor swimming pool, sauna, hot tub and steam room. While we were in the pool, many people dressed in fancy clothing walked by. This is when we realized the wedding reception was about to start. It was a bit awkward. The guests congregated in one area for appetizers and then, while our kids were still splashing in the pool, 120 guests walked by. We were a bit underdressed in our swimming gear.

A little while after the mass migration, a large family grouping started flooding the common area. They were swimming and singing Karaoke. Badly. Suddenly we did not feel as bad about making noise that could disturb the wedding. Aubrey stayed and finished his book in spite of the karaoke. Koren found a quieter place to hang out, amazed he could tolerate the off-key noise.

Our facilitator, Kristin, found us while we were playing pool. It turns out her family will be accompanying us on the trip as well – her parents, 21 year-old brother and 9 year-old sister. Our group has now grown to 14.

We opted to eat dinner in the hotel restaurant. It was delicious. The wedding reception was going strong next door. Suddenly, a band marched into the wedding – a snare drum, a bass drum, two trumpets and two saxophones. It was amazing. Then the band led the guests outside so they could set off some fireworks. They danced outside for awhile and then came back into the reception area. We figured that if we had brought something other than quick-dry clothes, and brushed up on our Spanish, we could have crashed the party.

Later we bumped into the third family on the trip, who are from California. They have a 9 year-old son and a 12 year-old daughter. Now we are more excited than ever to start our adventure in the Amazon. It looks like we will have a great team to work with. The itinerary looks fun-filled and fulfilling. We will be sure to keep track but won’t have access to Internet to upload our blog for the next week.

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Quito City Tour

July 15


Today we decided to take the day and explore the city. In 1978, Quito was the first city to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With a population over 2 million people, it is a mixture of both old and new. You can find Colonial squares and plazas, as well as modern malls. There is a recognition of the indigenous population and culture, as well as uber modern skyscrapers. The new areas, including near where we are staying, have a surprisingly large amount of glass in the buildings. And often the shapes and colours of the buildings are beyond the basics.

On our way to start our errands, the boys wanted to check out a trophy store we had walked by the previous week. It was blinding in there. There were trophies and plaques of every shape and size. Some were bigger than the kids! They also had a huge selection of tiaras in one showcase. None of us would want the job of polishing them all.

We had to find an apple friendly charger as ours is not working well. We figured our best bet was the shopping mall next to Carolina Park where we were going to catch the Quito Tourist bus. On the way, Erez spotted an apple dealer. We had to get buzzed in to shop in the store. In fact, many of the stores in that building had similar security set ups. Many small items were quite expensive, so we assume they are trying to stop shoplifting by controlling who and how many people are allowed in the store at once.

We also had to find an ATM so we ended up going into the mall anyway. It was quite an upscale mall, with many mall stores we would find at home.

After a bit of confusion based on our guide book having some details wrong (we’ll spare you the details, but it involves a walk across the huge and amazing Park Carolina and then back, returning to the intersection where we started walking from the mall) we got on Quito’s Double Decker Tour bus. For $15 you can buy a ticket that will take you to 11 spots of interest around the city in a three hour loop. You can hop on and off the bus as often as you like during the day. There is both a Spanish and English tour that is heard throughout the bus so you can learn about the city. In between sites of interest, they played well known Latin music as some of the people around us on the bus were singing and clapping along.

It was a very interesting ride, although somewhat downgraded by having to sit in traffic. We did hop off the bus at one location in “Old Town”. We did a thorough self-tour of one of the most impressive churches in South America, La Compania. Seven tonnes of gold are supposedly on the ceiling and on the artwork in the church. There are also countless paintings on the walls and ceilings. It has been called “Quito’s Sistine Chapel”. It was built by the wealthy Jesuit order between 1605 and 1765. It was severely damaged in the 1987 earthquake and an intense fire in 1996 but has been fully restored. We also looked through the church’s extensive collection of cultural artifacts, clothing and hats. The opulence was quite astonishing.

By the time we finished exploring the church, we had time to eat gelato, quickly explore the main Plaza and then hop back on the next bus. The next stop was El Panecillo (Little Bread Loaf) Hill. Overlooking the city there is a giant aluminum winged statue of the Virgin Mary. From the top of the hill you get a spectacular view of the city, continuous from new to old and back to new across the panorama, all nestled in the valley between two rows of volcanoes. Quito is about 50km long and only about 8km wide, limited by small hills to the east and the three large volcanoes to the west which help to define Quito. After this city exposure, we have some ideas of where to spend time when we are back in Quito for a couple of days at the end of our trip.

The bus was huge and many of the streets were narrow. It was a wonder the driver could navigate through them at all. A few times it seemed we were scratching the buildings that lined the streets. The guide kept announcing that the people on the top floor of the bus must stay in their seats, because in some parts of the city, there were very low hanging electrical wires or bridges and the bus just barely cleared them.

We ended the day back at the Carolina Park and started the 20 minute walk home. The boys were starving so we ended up stopping at a wing joint, because it was the first decent place that was open. On a Friday night why wouldn’t places be open at six? Initially we were looking at several items on the menu, until the server advised us of their four specialities, which were actually the only four things they had to serve. So we all shared wings. Otherwise, it felt just like a wing joint at home except the wings came with a convenient pair of thin disposable plastic gloves so your hands won’t get dirty. That didn’t help with the boys’ faces though! They also offered some interesting sauces like passion fruit, honey maple and a spicy red fruit sauce.

Tomorrow we will attempt to take public transit to our next hotel where we will meet up with our Me to We contact. Then, Sunday morning, we will head down to the Amazon.

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