Skip to content

Pushed

August 17, 2010

We lived by mountains; we lived by the sea, so for our last volunteering gig in South America we decided to plant ourselves directly beneath an active volcano.

When I say active, I mean shook the earth with explosions that sent lava skyrocketing in to the sky one month before we arrived active… sending chills and panic through the streets of Banos, the small touristy town in Ecuador that sits beneath the volatile giant.

Photo of Tunguruhua during recent eruption

The beast had quieted by the time we turned up, but during our month stay on an organic garden there we could still hear it rumbling from time to time, and watched in transfixed awe as it sent giant plumes of smoke and sometimes sprays of fire in to the ashy air.

Photo of the volcano when it isn´t spewing lava; taken during our stay

Tunguruhua, as it’s called, proved to be one of the tests that placed itself in front of me in Banos; a test I didn’t exactly pass, but I at least was brave enough to show up for it. Tests turned out to be a theme during my time there, one small one leading up to a slightly bigger one, and finally to the giant.

The first one revealed itself upon arrival at the organic garden, owned by a retired teacher from Canada named Carol. The place was beautiful, the Garden of Eden, as named by a fellow volunteer. At the very center sits a small bonfire pit enclosed by four home-made wobbly benches balancing on rocks. Rings of flowers spiraled out from there, yellow, pink, red, purple, white, orange, exotic and fragrant and lovely. South of that, on a hillside, are the crops: yucca and corn, broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, green onions, peppers, carrots, etc… To the north are a plethora of herbs and rows of tropical trees dripping with mandarins, lemons and avocados…

The organic garden where we volunteered

Not too shabby, you might be thinking. It wasn’t. Looking over it from the top, with the green hills of Banos beyond, was spectacular. Learning that I would be living among all that greenery — sleeping in a tent and sharing an outdoor kitchen and coldwater bathroom — was not.

It’s not that I mind rustic accommodations; it’s that I mind – as a few of you may have gathered by now – the bugs and rodents that go with them. And there were A LOT of them. Enormous sparkling insects would buzz around the kitchen at night, forcing you to duck and cover while preparing dinner. Giant spiders that looked like they’d escaped from the jungle would scurry across the floor. Herds of mice and rats would run across the plastic roof that served as our rain shelter and occasionally frolic in our dishes searching for a snack. Slimy slugs would lounge on the sink as you brushed your teeth.

Every night when I went to bed and was forced to make the trek from the kitchen across the grass to our tent, I would shield my feet with socks and sandals and pray as I scurried that a spider would not sneak up my leg or fall from one of the tree branches on to my face.

The test was not giving in to the initial desire to flee. I managed to pass. At the end of the month I was even able to leave the tent in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. At the start, frozen in fear by the bugs lying in wait outside, I got in the habit of meditating on images of leaky faucets being cranked shut every time I had to pee. That’s progress, right?

Test number two showed up about a week later, when Andy heard about a canyoning trip from some other volunteers. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” his eyes screamed as he heard the description of repeling down 120-foot waterfalls. My eyes wanted to start crying. To go or not to go, was the question on this test. Go and push myself to try something new or stay home like a pansy and maybe always wish I would have seized the chance.

I went, and eventually those eyes of mine did give way to tears; more than once. I was petrified. Let me tell you a little bit about repelling down a canyon; first, you walk to the edge of it, tied in by a rope, and then you just hurl yourself over, jumping down the slippery rock face as water from the falls smacks against you. On more than one occasion I thought it would surely be it; that my time was up. “Woman dies at first attempt with adventure sports”, the newspaper would say.

But I didn’t, and by the final repel, I actually even managed a smile on my way down.

That little teeny yellow dot is me

Then there was the giant, who started calling after Mario, the local volunteer leader at our organic garden, told us it was possible to climb it. Andy and the two other volunteers were on board immediately. I was not. Climb an active volcano? That rumbling, fire-spitting giant? Have you people lost your minds? No way; no thank you; not for me.

But it kept eating at me; gnawing at my insides as the days passed. Going seemed crazy, so dangerous it was declared forbidden to climbers due to the recent eruption; but not going, passing up something so wacky and once in a lifetime, seemed crazy too. On the morning they were preparing to leave, I changed my mind and packed my bag.

It was a two-day journey. We left the city in a rented truck in the afternoon and winded up the base of the volcano to the first refugio. Then we started walking. It rained as we made our way straight up the volcano, sloshing through mud and crouching through natural tunnels of dirt and vines. It was a hard, dirty climb. We had to stop every 20 minutes or so to catch our breath and let our heart rates slow.

Finally, after four hours of climbing, we reached the second refugio, an old house abandoned after the eruption that was to be our base camp for the night. To the side of it sat a memorial to a young climber that had died on his expedition up Tungurahua, a rarity, Mario said, but it wasn’t the only one we saw.

The sun went down soon after we settled in to our camp; and with it the last few degrees of warmth. Teeth chattering and freezing, we climbed in to our sleeping bags — laid in a row of four strewn horizontally over a single mattress – to get a few hours of sleep for the day ahead.

As we tried to doze, Tungurahua began to grumble and groan, like distant thunder. I lay awake terrified, angry at myself for making such an irresponsible decision and haunted by the fact that when we got up in a few hours we intended to ascend even higher. I desperately didn’t want to go but I was also scared to be left behind.

Finally the alarm went off and bodies shuffled and the next phase of the trip began. We walked back out in to the night and met a sea of stars and the city lights of Ambato below. To our left Mario pointed out the mouth of the volcano, which had started to spit fire in to the night.

A couple hours later, at about 4 a.m., we started our second climb. We walked in complete blackness except for the glow of headlamps up the side of the volcano, toward the fire. We stumbled over shrubs and foot holes.

In my life, I have never felt that scared. I also felt alone because no one else seemed to share the intensity of my fear. They were charged with excitement and anticipation while I felt like I was walking to my death.

Finally, after about an hour of Mario telling us it would be just ten minutes more, I put my foot down. I told Andy I couldn’t go any further; I was too scared. We sat down, with icy air whipping around us, 12,000 feet up the volcano.

Me trying not to freeze to death on the spot we stopped on Tunguruhua

After spending about 15 minutes hovering in my sleeping bag on the ground, shaking from fear and the freezing temperature, I looked up. What I saw was breathtaking. A layer of wispy clouds was moving below us revealing giant land formations beneath: mountains, valleys, three snow-capped volcanoes that sat in the distance. It looked prehistoric, like dinosaurs emerging from a misty sea. Then we watched as the dark faded and the sun crept up, coloring the sky and illuminating all of Banos below.

The view

Magical

‘This was worth it,’ I told myself. ‘I will never, ever do it again, but I am so glad I saw this once.’

I had to keep reminding myself of that during our six-hour descent back to Banos.

In retrospect, it was all worth it; not just the view, not just when I finally felt free enough to smile during the canyoning trip. It was worth it to feel that intense fear coursing through my body. I don’t know why yet or what I learned exactly. I don’t think the experiences will lessen my fear the next time I push myself to do something hard or unknown. But I guess at least now I have those memories to take with me; evidence of a time when I did push myself through and managed to come out the other side.

These are some of the things I’ll remember about Banos. I’ll also remember a few people: Carly, Maria, Marie, Kyle, Mario… you won´t be easy to forget either.

On the road again…

July 21, 2010

After sitting still in El Bolson for a month, Andy and I spent the next one racing around the rest of Argentina. Here are some of the highlight…

Buenos Aires

For me this lively city can be summarized in four words… steak, streets, cityscapes and style.

Steak — grilled in the traditional Argentine parilla style – because it was EVERYWHERE and soooo delicious. Why? They say because cattle roam free in this country, munching on fresh grass all day instead of chemicals. A thick, juicy cut dripping with flavor could easily be found for less than $10. On our last night Andy and I treated Blake — Andy’s good buddy and our extremely generous host — to a night at one of Buenos Aires finest. Our prize-winning cuts came out accompanied by, no joke, about 15 different delectable dipping sauces; some had hints of horseradish, others were buttery or earthy or packed with olives. I accidently ordered the steak Andy and I were splitting a bit too rare, like about to walk off our plate rare, but I sopped that blood up with those dipping sauces and loved every meaty-morsel.

The whole fine-dining experience, bottle of wine included, came to less than $45. Needless to say we ate a lot of meat in Buenos Aires, and a lot of ice cream; oh, and did I mention the cookie/cake alfajores that scream “eat me” from every store shelf? Or the caramelly Dulce de Leche? Or the laughably cheap wine? Because that was all good too. If you could see me now, you’d see how good.

Streets — because they’re alive in Buenos Aires at all hours of the day, trust me I tested it. They are alive with the smells of bakeries and hanging cow sides hanging in restaurant windows. Alive with street performers and fruit vendors and jewelry makers. Alive with high-powered business folk racing to work and fresh-faced students walking in packs down the streets. Alive with the blur of yellow taxes and honking horns. Alive with sidewalk cafes full of people and coffee and yummy medialunas. Alive with homelessness and pollution. Alive with music and hurry and life.

Cityscapes — because they are so unique and always changing. You seriously want to photograph nearly every building you see because the architecture is so rich…. marbles and columns and colors and tuck pointing and steeples and cupolas and other fancy-schmancy architectural feats I don’t know by name.

The effect of all this architectural artistry is stunning. It’s like walking through an art gallery every time you stroll down a street. It changes too, from neighborhood to neighborhood… French architecture to Spanish to modern to Italian.

Oh, and the president’s house is pink. Yep, pink! We walked past it most days while wondering around town. It’s sort of a mauvey color by day but by night, with the help of spot lights I think, it glows a bright, hot pink. At first I thought it was a bit to Vegas-esque for my taste but in the end I decided it was sassy and different and beautiful.

The Pink House

Style — because the people in Argentina seem to bathe in it. Every single person walking down the street sways with it, making the whole town feel like a big, winding catwalk.

From what I could gather, to be an Argentine citizen you must drape yourself in scarves – any color, length or material goes – buy a fabulous coat and own about 75 pairs of leather boots. Oh the glorious boots!!! Short boots, high boots, heeled boots, studded boots, red boots, fringe boots, cowboy boots, combat boots. I seriously almost missed the architecture I was so busy staring at people’s shoes, but who knew there were many different ways to adorn our feet in beauty?

Their style went deeper than the clothes though, it was the way they wore them. So effortlessly and confident, but never pretentious the way I sometimes felt Italians seemed strutting down the streets of Florence; just very comfortable and in charge of their funkiness.

So what happens when a Midwestern traveler with a limited wardrobe comes across such style? Two things actually. First, she becomes acutely aware of how absolutely unstylish she is. Second, she starts to feel an intense and uncontrollable desire to buy things, any things, in hopes she’ll stumble across some style along the way. The disappointing and expensive truth of that, however, is that it seems you really can’t buy Argentine style. It’s a blood thing, I think. I mean who else besides an Argentinean could make the mullet look chic?

Iguazu Falls

One thought kept repeating itself to me as I walked above and below and around the masterpiece of mighty falls that stretch across Parque Iguazu and lure people from across the world to come see them, ‘God’s beard.’ I don’t know why, and I admit the image might not make a lot of sense, but for some reason the silvery, twinkling rush of water pouring from the sky in every direction reminded me of some sort of celestial characteristic, the beard of a god if you will.

The entire spectacle is really beyond words though, and the beauty beyond the reach of a camera, at least mine anyway. From certain points in the park you are standing surrounded by countless roaring streams of water charging over the edges of florescent green cliffs and collapsing in to clouds of mist that look like plumes of heavy smoke rising up in to the sky. As you walk you feel the mist from the falls and hear their deafening roar and every once in awhile rainbows dance in the water.

I was worried my groggy-state after the sleepless 20-hours I spent on the bus to get there might limit my experience, but the energy and power of the falls infects you and screams “WAKE UP!!!”

I did.

Iguazu Falls

Salta

Salta is the biggest city in northwestern Argentina and Andy and I spent a night there on our tour of the region. There were many things about the city we liked but for me the highlight was the dancing. I don’t even know what it was called but I will never forget the storm that shook the city that night in Salta.

Clad in wide-brim hats, knee length skirts and tall, leather boots that draped over their lower legs like fabric, four indigenous Argentine men took the stage at a restaurant we stopped by for dinner. What happened next was a dizzying tornado of spinning, stomping, whooping, lassoing, and lots more dramatic stomping. Woman in floor-length skirts and frilly blouses accompanied but unlike most professional dancing I’ve seen, it was the men who stole the show. They were passionate and furious and prideful and fantastic. It reminded me of River Dance only better because it was happening 20-feet from my face.

To say I was obsessed is an understatement. Let’s just say if I could do life all over again, I’d try really hard to become an indigineous Argentine male dancer.

Seriously people, this was “So You Think You Can Dance” material.

Pumamarca

Pumamarca is a tiny, dusty village in northwestern Argentina full of indigenous life. By day the streets are full of local people making and selling wares. By night the melodic sounds of folklorico music echo throughout the town. All of this is encircled by giant, rocky hills that twinkle with color. The hills were the reason for our visit, particularly the village’s most famous one, called “The Hill of Seven Colors.” It was stunning, covered in shades of teal-green, clay-reds, soft-pinks, dirty-yellows and crisp whites. It looked like somebody took a giant paintbrush and dipped it in to the rainbow and just started shaking the hell out of it at this hill.

The colors spilled on to other hills as well. We spent an afternoon sitting in a desolate valley of nothing but cacti and other desert shrubs, mesmorized by the crown of colorful hills that sat around us.

The Hill of Seven Colors

Mendoza

Those who know me likely know I´m not much of a sports fan, but all of that changed when I found myself smack dab in the middle of Argentina while the country was furiously competing in the World Cup. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself madly in love with the country´s caricature of a coach and painting my face blue in Argentina´s signature color.

Andy and I caught the country´s playoff game in Mendoza, a beautiful city fully infected with futbol fever. We left our hostel early in hopes of finding a good spot to take in the match with real blue blood, but on a Sunday most shops were shuttered up and we reluctantly ended up at an Irish Pub.

No matter, it turned out, as we soon found several locals with the same idea. Soon the face paint was passed around and everyone took their position to anxiously await the start of the game. When Argentina first scored against Mexico and that piercing “GOAL” rally cry echoed through the bar, everyone got to their feet and started yelling and chanting and singing and hugging. The energy was electric and pretty soon, little ole sports novice me, was shaking my fists and jumping up and down right along with them.

Once the team´s win was locked, the previously desolate town shook with victory. Thousands of people took to their cars and started parading through the streets. They waved flags and pounded drums and screamed with joy for hours. Others hit the pavement on foot dressed head to toe in pride — wigs and capes and shirts and face paint, on everyone from babies to grandmothers – creating a sea of white and blue through the city.

In my life, I´ve never seen such an uninhibited display of raw joy and authentic expression of self. Nobody was looking over their shoulder to see who was looking as grown men embraced wildly and locked arms in mad jigs through the streets. It was silly and delirious and dizzying and beautiful.

It reminded me of something my wise sister Laura recently said, that real beauty radiates when people feel free enough to be exactly who they are. I know it´s just a game, and I also know Argentina went on to lose, but for that one day, all of Argentina, or at least Mendoza, radiated in just that sort of beauty, entirely alive with pure, crazed love.

To be able to witness that was a gift in and of itself, but to be welcomed in to the frenzied celebration with such powerful warmth is something I will always remember.

Fan Fever

Sounds of Silence

July 2, 2010

If only I had the guts and the cash and the skills to buy and work a few acres of land in the middle of some beautiful nowhere, somewhere… now, after experiencing what I did for 28 days in southern Argentina, I think I might actually do it.

I’m a huge scaredy cat and very indecisive, not to mention a big talker, so who knows really, but that’s how much I loved the way I lived and slept and worked and felt for the month I spent on this small farm in El Bolson.

For those of you who read my last post, you may recall that I jumped in to this leg of the trip with a bit of trepidation after the host farm that was supposed to put us up bailed 24 hours before our flight. The fact that plan B turned out to be so exactly what I needed must say something about… something.

Anyway, this farm that found its way into our lives is owned by Suzie and Harald, a brilliant couple from Austria – she a physical therapist and he a doctor – who decided to pick up their life 12 years ago and move across the world, daughter in tow, to try something radically different.

They bought 200 acres of land in southern Argentina, a few animals, and got to work. Now, after just over a decade and LOTS of mistakes – says Suzie — they’ve got quite a life humming along.

They are the proud and gentle owners of two dairy cows, seven steers, twenty sheep, three horses, two dogs, four cats, five chickens and a few ducks. The dairy cows, as you might imagine, are their source for milk and yummy cheeses, the sheep provide wool for quilts and other cozy things, the chickens contribute eggs, the steers meat and the ducks and horses, “joy,” according to Suzie.

And that’s just the animals. They also have about 15 apple trees that rain more fruit than anyone could possibly eat, a field of golden grain used for flour, pastures to feed the animals, and trees to get lost in for days and provide enough wood for Harald to build the six structures that now sit on their land, including their beautiful home and the cute cabana that housed Andy and I during our stay.

Now, keeping all that in your mind, close your eyes and picture it nestled between a giant family of mountains standing guard on all sides that is so stunning you find yourself breathless at least seventy five times a day. That’s the farm that fell from the sky and in to our lives.

As I write this I’m thinking to myself, ‘good God Sarah, stop exaggerating; surely it wasn’t that fantastic.’ And maybe it wasn’t. Maybe any of you would see it and smile and think ‘how lovely’ and move on. Maybe it’s more what this place gave me that makes it shine in my memory.

It wasn’t always this way, between me and my magical farm. I nearly abandoned her on the first night we met after her chilly greeting. And when I say chilly I mean it literally. It was teeth-chattering cold, which really shocked the system after the scorching heat of Bahia. Despite Andy’s best efforts to get the fire roaring in our estufa – our only heat source in the cabana – it felt like we were never able to get the temperature above frost-bite territory that first night. Draped in four layers of clothes and burrowed deep in my sleeping bag, I shivered and chattered and cursed our new home all night long.

She didn’t take long to grow on me though, what with her bright yellow leaves twinkling in the fall sunlight, her pink morning skies and her quiet presence. It may have been the quiet that reined me in most of all; so quiet, that most days you could hear nothing but wind and the sighs and cries of animals. One day, when Andy and I had a chance to visit one of our mountains, we could actually hear ice melting.

Quiet was a big part of what I wanted from this trip. For years I’ve struggled with a fuzzy sense of self and this trip represented a chance to let all the background noise that’s been fogging up my head and spirit fade away so I could try to see me.

The wonderfully, amazing thing about El Bolson and its quiet was that sometimes, in certain moments, it worked. Even better, I sometimes even liked what I saw.

I don’t think it was just the quiet though. If you pushed mute on the busy streets of Buenos Aires, for example, I still don’t think you’d have the backdrop for reflection. It also had to do with how we were living.

It looked a little something like this, each day nearly always the same. Andy and I would wake up around 8:30, eat breakfast and start on the 10-minute walk over frosted ground to the farm. From there we would part, as Andy worked primarily with Harald and me with Suzie to keep in accordance with their seemingly old fashioned ideas about gender roles. I didn’t really mind though, seeing as how that meant I got to take out the sheep and feed the chickens while he shoveled manure from the cow’s stable. And then I got to bake bread or clean wool or dig for treasure in the garden while he dug drainage ditches or lowered the floor of the sheep stable. In the late afternoons, after a glorious two-hour siesta, I would collect apples, harvest wheat, gather wood or do whatever else Suzie decided to throw my way. Finally, at about 7, I would bring in the sheep, close up the chicken stable and meet Andy for our 10-minute walk home.

Sometimes it was tedious; after collecting apples for two hours straight – plopping them one by one in to a bucket — I promise you’ll occasionally want to threaten the trees with an ax if they even think about dropping another one. Sometimes it was exhausting; tears rolled down my cheeks after one particularly grueling five-hour shift spent bent at the waist cutting wheat by hand. Sometimes it was stressful; nearly every morning when I tried to lead the sheep to graze they ended up leading me on a high speed chase through the farm slipping and sliding over manure. But all of it, at least once it was over, felt wonderful.

It felt good to use my body everyday and work outside. It felt good to be around animals. It felt good to contribute to an environmentally-conscious way of life in a place that serves as one of the world’s reminders of what we stand to lose by keeping our heads down. It felt good to watch two people work so tirelessly for something that matters to them. It felt good to know that most of what I put in to my body was grown or grew-up on the land I was working. But it also felt good to occasionally spoil myself with wine and Oreos. It felt good to spend time in the mountains. It felt good to be away from the buzz of television and internet and cell phones. It felt good to witness Andy’s pride when he successfully made a roaring fire in our estufa. It felt good to witness my own pride when I successfully cooked a decent meal, leaving faint hope that I may one day move out of the laughing-stock position of my culinary genius gene-pool. It felt good to have time to read and daydream about writing a children’s book someday. It felt good to believe in myself enough to think it might not be a total waste of time to actually try it. It felt good to be still for awhile.

It reminds me of a quote I stumbled across recently in a popular book about another’s traveling quest, “Eat, Pray, Love.” The author, Elizabeth Gilbert, quotes a Buddhist monk who says, “You can’t see your reflection in running water… only still.”

After my quiet month in the mountains of El Bolson, that really resonates; even more so after spending two weeks on the screeching streets of Buenos Aires followed by two more racing through northern Argentina, running to see that or scrambling to do this. I felt the fog drift back in; I sensed the stress stirring.

But now at least I know how to get rid of it; slow down, find a quiet spot… or buy a farm in Patagonia:)

Our cozy cabana is dwarfed by the mountains that sit behind it

The sunlight creates a spotlight on the sheep that lived on our farm

Pink farm sky

To see the rest of the pictures from El Bolson, go to the following link and click on the album for El, Bolson, Argentina. Don’t forget to turn on the captions. http://www5.snapfish.com/snapfish/groupview/groupid=75931008/groupownerid=72795002/

Road kill

May 29, 2010

A few tales from the long and bumpy road between Ecuador and Argentina, our current location.

A pig, a cow and Laura

We’re not sure if it was the crunchy, pink pig-skin she gnawed on at a local market or the raw hamburger she devoured from a street vendor; maybe neither, the doctor said, but something suddenly landed our Laura in a hospital bed in Cuenca.

It was our fourth night in the stately Ecuadorian city, our stop-gap point after leaving Bahia and before flying out of Quito for Argentina. Laura and Paress, notorious for stalking hamburger vendors after nightfall, had done it again. Half-way through the feeding frenzy Paress noticed the patties were raw.

Out touring the next day they had their run-in with culprit number two: a giant pig on a giant spit. Laura dug her fork in to the side of it and tasted the sizzling skin before ordering a plateful. ‘It seemed a little sketchy but it tasted delicious,’ she would later say.

Hours later, in the middle of the night, Laura would regret both decisions. She came down with an alarmingly high fever and intense pain in her neck. After spending the day in bed and awaking the next morning with the fever still roaring, she started to get worried. Online research suggested it could be meningitis. Our doctor back in the states encouraged us to go to the emergency room.

As we hurried past soldiers doing pushups in the hospital ‘lobby’ I felt panic begin to take hold. With Laura, our go-to-translator, scared and sick, I knew it would be up to me to try and navigate the Ecuadorian medical system. Thankfully Ramon, our friend from Bahia, was in town visiting and able to help.

In broken Spanish I would try to tell Ramon — who speaks only Spanish — Laura’s symptoms and the tests we wanted done and he would rephrase what he understood for the doctors. When they neglected to do what I asked I knew key points were getting lost in translation; it’s not easy, for example, to translate mononucleosis in to Spanish. I was terrified that something would be missed and my littlest sister, who at that point was shivering on a hospital bed with an IV sticking out of her, would pay the price.

The experience was surreal as we ran between doctors and the laboratory to get tests taken and pay for services, all the while weaving and bobbing between the soldiers who had begun to march and chant outside Laura’s door. We would later learn it was a military hospital and Laura would swear, though she was feverish at the time, that she heard them sing the Spanish version of, “The ants go marching one by one, hoorah, hoorah.”

My breaking point came when one of the doctors — our favorite one who spoke a little English and resembled Shrek — said the word no traveler wants to hear: malaria. “But we were vaccinated for that,” I started to say as the tears began to stream down my face; “There isn’t supposed to be malaria in Bahia.”

“It’s possible,” Shrek gently told me; “we need to do more tests.” At that point my stream of tears turned to a downpour and Ramon had to shake me out of it, reminding me we didn’t want our patient to see me rattled.

“Ok,” I sniffled, and pulled myself together. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally we got the news. Our Laura thankfully did not have malaria. She did not have meningitis or Dengue fever, another possibility tossed out by the doctors. She did, however, have salmonella – essentially typhoid, the doctors said — one of the other great risks for travelers that can hide in contaminated food or water.

After six hours in the hospital, an IV, more than a week of swearing off all delicious food and alcohol, and lots of medicine — one of which caused Laura’s hands to swell and set off another round of calls to our dear doctor — our patient recovered.

And so after an earlier bout with a nasty staff infection in Bahia, our Laura has lived to tell yet another health-scare tale on this journey. Damn that raw hamburger. Damn the crunchy pink, pig-skin.

Worth the wait

Cuenca is a beautiful city. It’s exceptionally clean for Ecuador standards, with row after row of stately buildings built of colorful tiles and gleaming white stucco, all leading to the sky blue cupolas of it’s New Cathedral that sits at its center.

A lot of the charm wore off quickly for us though, what with the traveler’s diarrhea keeping me nearly bed-ridden for the first part of our stay and Laura coming down with typhoid shortly after. Needless to say we were ready for a little trip out of town. Andy, Paress and I – Laura was still in recovery – decided to head to the nearby Parque Nacional Cajas for some fresh air.  

It didn’t go exactly as planned. What was supposed to be an hour and a half bus ride turned in to a five hour debacle after a road closing kept us at a stand-still for two hours and we missed our stop, forcing us on to another bus Paress swore was secretly harboring farm animals.

Squished in the back seat and surrounded by school children that seemed to be taking turns farting, we wondered if we should have stayed in bed with Laura.

Then we arrived. The park was like stepping in to a magical kingdom, a cross between the candy-created paradise of Charlie and the Chocolate factory and a Van Gogh painting. Spring-board ground that felt like it should have been in a gymnastics arena was covered in geometric designs that looked straight out of a Magic Eye and dotted with tiny flowers that looked almost plastic. Spooky Palermo trees with oddly contorted limbs, which the guide book fittingly described as reminiscent of a Brother’s Grimm fairytale, stretched out their arms toward us as we made our way around a lake in misting rain.  

The park floor

Tiny pin-wheel flowers

Spooky Polylepis tree

We were honestly awe-struck at every step as our eyes absorbed the rainbow of colors – mostly shades of green — stacked on top of each other in wispy grasses, exotic cacti and wild flowers.

Can you see the hint of Van Gogh?

After our disastrously long trip getting there, we only had an hour to explore before catching the last bus back to town, but those 60 minutes in the park were worth every one of the excruciating 300 spent in route. It might be one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. 

Sarah Horner; backpacker; former journalist; drug smuggler

So I like to come prepared. So what? Doesn’t make me a drug-smuggler. It does, however, make me a suspected drug-smuggler, it seems.

My huge medical kit aroused suspicion during the security check at the Quito airport before our flight out of town for Argentina.

I was flagged to the front counter while Andy, Paress, Laura and I sat waiting for the boarding call. Looking ever so threatening in my new, bright-yellow Bahia t-shirt, I waltzed over.

The woman working told me, or rather my translator Laura, that I needed to be escorted downstairs to have my backpack searched. Laura understood it to be a routine check one lucky person is randomly selected for on every flight, but my escort told me otherwise. “The dogs smelled something in your bag,” he said in English.

Gulp. Smelled something? What? I ran through the list of contents I’d packed in my bag. Clothing? Check. Sleeping bag? Check. Pound of heroin? I felt fairly certain I’d left that one at home.

Even sure of my innocence I felt terrified following him out the back exit. “What if someone else put something in my backpack,” I panicked? Ever seen the movie Brokedown Palace? It can happen, people.

We finally stopped at a long table full of young men poking through my stuff with flashlights. Of particular interest was my medical kit, overflowing with hundreds of tablets to combat malaria, traveler’s diarrhea, constipation, runny noses, vitamin C deficiencies (thanks Anna), and a host of other possible ailments that might try and keep us down on our adventure. Like I said, I come prepared.

After grilling me about why one small girl needed so much medication they turned their attention to the other item taking up space in my kit, a wad of about 50 condoms my gynecologist insisted I take with me.

“So what,” I asked? “I have a boyfriend upstairs,” I sheepishly explained, as if they were insinuating my abundance of condoms suggested I was some sort of prostitute. Turns out, they didn’t care about my boyfriend, or about the plethora of protection, they just wanted to cash in on my stash.

“Do you mind if I have some,” one of the guards asked? “Condoms? Uh, yeah; sure,” I said, completely weirded out. I tossed him a couple and got the heck out of there.

It wasn’t until I unpacked my things in Argentina that I realized condoms weren’t the only thing they’d taken. Those badge-wearing, flashlight-wielding bastards also stole my Ipod.

Change of plans

One whole day before being fingered for a drug-smuggler, Andy and I were hurrying down the streets of Quito trying to make sure we had everything for our trip out of town.

After dropping off some things in storage, we decided to do one last email check. I opened one from Ellie, the woman who would be hosting us on her farm for our first month in the country. What I expected to be a quick note about last-minute arrival details was instead our open door in to Argentina slamming in our face.  

“I hope it’s not too late to change your tickets,” she wrote, and went on to say a sudden change of events needed to take her and her husband out of the country and they could no longer host us.

What???!!!???!!??? ‘Not too late to change your tickets’; we were leaving in 24 hours! I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Ellie’s farm, isolated beneath the mountains in the lake district of Patagonia, had been the first one we’d chosen during our research back in the states. We’d dreamt about that place; we’d talked for hours about that place; after the last 10 stress-packed days we’d spent on the road, I needed that place. It represented rest, not to mention a free roof over our heads, something both of our budgets depended on.

My heart dropped; my brain stopped firing neurons; everything went numb. Then… I cracked. I cried like I haven’t cried in years. Tears streamed down my face for hours; six hours; there were puddles on my bed. I knew that plans can change unexpectedly while traveling, that those things are part of the experience; sometimes the best part. Perhaps it was just one thing gone wrong too many, but something deep-rooted and holding on tight inside of me would not let me see a way through it.

Finally, after about the eighth time Andy suggested I hop in the shower and try to relax for a minute, I listened. I pulled my withered and weary body up off the bed and turned on the faucet. Then, I prayed. I told God that it was in his or her hands; that what will be, should be. Then, after a few big and mighty breathes, I let it go.  

The next morning we woke up with another email waiting from Ellie. She said she might have a lead on another farm for us. A speck of hope, I thought, let’s go with it.

We boarded the plane not knowing exactly where we’d end up.

Side trips

May 9, 2010

This is a collection of some of the weekend trips I took while staying in Bahia. I should have done them separately but I didn’t get around to it so here they are now, in all their long glory. Cheers to you if you make it through all three.

Canoa

Canoa was the first side trip we took from Bahia. It was just a hop, skip and a boat ride across the river, plus a short bus trip. The beach there stretches on and on and on and during the day it’s dotted with brightly colored tents that people use to shade them from the relentless sun.

String of tents along the beach

I went with Andy, Laura, Paress, Susan (another friend of Laura’s), and Jen (an English hippie volunteering at Planet Drum for a spell) the first weekend we landed in Bahia. We stayed at a quaint little beach resort with cabanas and hammocks scattered along the sand, seemingly light-years away from the mess and chaos we’d left behind at our first Planet Drum apartment.

The beach-vibe spilled in to the town, which seemed to only spread over several blocks. One bamboo hut followed another and another and another all along the beach, with most selling some combination of fresh fruit, drinks and a few bites to eat. It was charming, but it also felt very manufactured, like a movie set built to create a certain allure but lacking any authenticity. The local scenesters, most of which were men, played the extras while the revolving door of female tourists took turns playing the staring roles as the beach tents came down and the nightlife began.

Andy and I had front row seats for the show one night. With a boyfriend by my side, the men didn’t waste their time on me, but they were in hot pursuit of the rest of the ladies. We watched as they shamelessly gawked at the girls from clusters around the edges of the bar until they found the right time to break apart and make their move. A friend of ours from Bahia refers to this “type” as land sharks, men slowly circling until they find the right time to pounce on their prey.

For Laura, Paress and Susan, the event was harmless, just chatting and dancing, but we later heard that a woman and man walking drunkenly on the beach late the next night were supposedly accosted. The man was held back while five Ecuadorian men raped the girl. It was a horrible and scary wake up call about the potential dangers that lurk at night when you’re alone and vulnerable.  

Despite the bad, there was some goodness tucked in corners of Canoa. The beach was spectacular, long and deep, with big waves great for playing and surfing. It was also a great spot for shell collecting, and I found many… pink, purple, peach, ivory, orange… and even a couple black sand dollars. Andy and I woke up early one day to enjoy the beach by sunrise and walked along it to giant rocks that jetted out in to the sea. I hunted for more treasures in the rocks while Andy meditated… it was peaceful and beautiful, until Andy felt the ‘Big D’ coming on, the nickname I think Paress gave to the traveler’s diarrhea that haunted nearly all of us on that trip. His onset was so bad that he even thought about letting it loose in the ocean, to which I replied, ‘hell no, that’s repulsive’ and made him run all the way back to our cabana.

My carefully collected treasures

   

Later that day, Laura introduced me to my first coco betido, which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Though I’ve loved them all, none tasted as good as that very first… Flakes of fresh coconut mixed with ice, milk and sugar sucked down from my spot at the bamboo bar. I’m licking my lips as I think back on that first sip.

I will always be thankful to Canoa for that.    

Puerto Lopez

Puerto Lopez was likely my favorite trip from Bahia. It’s a small fishing village on the ocean some four hours down the coast. I will remember most the millions of manic birds that swarmed the boats in the mornings and what it felt like to have my face in the water sans nose plugged… here’s a little foreshadowing, it was marvelous.

We arrived Friday afternoon but the adventures really started the following morning so that’s where I’ll begin. We – Andy, Laura, Paress, Jane, Simon, Sam and I – woke up early Saturday morning to watch the fisherman drag in their catch.

The fish, though impressive, were not the scene stealers at this event, it was the birds. You could see them as you walked down the beach toward the harbor where ships of all sizes were making their way to the shore. Millions, ok in all honesty hundreds, of black, beautiful frigate birds hovered above. Frigate birds are vultures that largely survive by stealing their food source, making fishing boats stacked high with fresh fish ideal targets.

They would dive down as the fisherman literally ran from their boats with buckets of fish, desperately trying to reach the trucks waiting inland without losing their catch. Standing amid this frenzied dance was terrifying and hysterical and incredible all at once. Birds were swooping and circling sometimes feet from your face. It was like standing in the middle of the movie “Birds.”

A glimpse in to the feeding frenzy

Many of the fish that made it past the predators didn’t last long though. They were sliced and diced and thrown in to pots and pans with other spices and vegetables and served up to hungry folks waiting right there on the beach. It all felt very alive and frenzied and exciting; beach town commerce at its peak.

After watching in awe for nearly an hour, we returned to our hostel and got ready for our second adventure of the day: our trip to Isla de La Plata, otherwise known as the poor man’s Galapagos, a small island about an hour from Puerto Lopez. We hiked for about three hours around the island with a guide pointing out different birds nesting with their young and beautiful ocean views. It was fascinating to see some of the wildlife, particularly the blue-footed boobies, but the hike was during mid day and hot, hot, hot, seemingly like the Sahara desert at times with trees no higher than mid ankle to provide a respite of shade.  It was all worth it though, because at the end of the hike we got to return to the boat for a bout of snorkeling.

It was my first attempt at such an underwater adventure and at first I thought I would feel claustrophobic and anxious with that mask strapped to my face and surely die of a panic attack in the middle of the ocean, but once I got in the water and forced myself to relax, it was glorious.  I didn’t even care if I saw any fish; it was enough to just have my face in the water without my nose plugged for once. I could float and let the water move me, all while watching the underwater world below. I felt weightless and free, like I was dancing with the current. I am normally scared in the water, but I just let my fears go; sometimes I was surrounded by hundreds of tiny fish practically touching me; other times I’d see nothing and then would suddenly stumble upon a school and find myself swimming with them. The colors were amazing, blue and purple and yellow and black and orange. I was later told that the trip was not that great; that often the water is much clearer for snorkeling, revealing a far more exotic and diverse underwater world, but for me it was magical. I have seldom felt that free. 

Me as snorkeler

And there was more. The next day we visited a sulfur bath in the middle of a national park. After being attacked by millions of mosquitoes the night before, I was especially excited for the therapeutic spa experience. Turns out, not so great, at least for me. It felt wonderful to first be slathered in mud by the women working at the park, but the actual bath was a bit, um, smelly. It wreaked of rotten eggs and you had to submerge yourself in it to wash off the mud and absorb the healing powers of the waters. I could hardly breathe and nearly vomited several times during my ‘bath.’ The experience was individual though, Laura, for example, was practically swimming laps.

After the spa treatment, we headed to Agua Blanca, a beautiful beach in the national park with a unique rip tide. We only had time to be there for about 20 minutes but even that short spell was enough to experience some of its splendor. The rip tide pulled water out at the same time waves crashed in, creating the most spectacular crests and giant splashes. All of us just stood there with mouths gaping as we watched. They were the biggest waves I saw during my entire stay on the coast.

This doesn't do it justice, but you get the idea...

After that, we climbed in to a friend’s truck, some of us in the back of the cab, and drove home, bumping and speeding, sometimes 90 miles an hour, along the roads back to Bahia. At times I thought for sure I would die, and I wasn’t even one of the ones sitting in the truck-bed; one final adventure in a weekend full of them.

La Gorda

It began packed in the back of a truck cab and ended in a long, sandy walk home. It was our weekend at La Gorda, Ramon’s hand-built home on a secluded beach just outside of Bahia.

Ramon was one of the field hands that showed us the ropes when we first got to Planet Drum. He’s Ecuadorian, late 30s and incredibly smart. When he wasn’t helping out Planet Drum he was teaching local kids about the environment. He also casually taught us English and anything else we wanted to know about the beat of Bahia. Over time he also became a friend.

One weekend, now several weekends ago, he invited us to pile in to the back of a red, rented pick-up truck and head to his abode. The group included myself, Andy, Laura, Paress, Clay (Planet Drum director), Margarita (Clay’s kooky and wonderful wife), their toddler Sol, Orlando (our field boss), Simon and Jane (an older married couple from England volunteering at the same time as us); Sam (another volunteer from Washington) and an old friend of Ramon’s named Jose.

From start to finish, everything about the trip was… wonderful. The drive was gorgeous, first through green hillsides and later along a beach hugging giant, sandy bluffs.

View of the green hillsides

 

Laura and I and the view once the truck hit the beach

At one point we stopped to go oyster hunting. Ramon, Clay, Laura and Andy waded in to the water with hammers and picks and knocked oysters off giant rocks. Once cracked, the ugly brown deposits revealed beautiful iridescent shells and fresh oyster meat.  I didn’t touch those slimy suckers but it was a blast watching Laura, Andy and Paress slurp them down and ask for more.

Laura posing with her catch

When we got back in the truck and drove further, Ramon’s house peaked its head out from the top of a steep tree-covered hill. It looked isolated and perfect for a weekend getaway. It was. We arrived to find a secluded beach stretching for miles with his simple one-room home above on the hillside. Simon, Jane, Andy and I headed straight in to the water and jumped waves while Paress and Laura flipped around on the shore like mermaids, laughing as the tide rolled them in and out.

When we got out, or maybe it was before we got in — the details are getting murky now – we found one of our greatest treasures of the trip: crabs!!! They were everywhere, and they were hilarious. Hundreds, red and sand-colored, small and big, sped like lightning sideways along the sand as we crept closer. One second they were all around us, and the next gone, leaving only their sand holes to prove we didn’t imagine them. Later Andy and Paress would hilariously hunt crab, hurling their bodies on to the sand. Their ridiculous efforts yielded them each a catch though, which they promptly killed and ate… raw.

Pretty self explanatory

The rest of the afternoon was spent sipping Cana out of coconut and listening to tunes. At one point I decided to break from the pack and head to the sea. When I was in it, it was mine, just for those thirty minutes or so. To be that alone with the ocean was amazing, and for me, poetic… I spent the time listening to its sounds and watching it move. It inspired this little ditty…  

“Me and the Sea” my first and perhaps only poem…

The ocean speaks and spits and teases and terrifies as I stand in its midst on a Friday afternoon.

Just off the shores of a secluded beach it feels like standing in the middle of a performance.

Waves roar and tumble and clap and dance and then suddenly stop to let the sea whisper and fizz and breathe for a minute.

My emotions shift with it. I giggle wildly and then shriek in terror as the waves vacillate between playful and powerful.

When it calms, I am filled with gratitude, and a peace, that in that moment, feels as deep and strong as the sea.

I’m no poet, but hey, if the spirit moves you…

Anyway… After my love affair with the ocean we all watched the sun set and then headed up to the house for dinner. The accommodations were sparse, but more than enough; just one room with two sets of bunk beds and a table, with an outdoor kitchen of sorts below. The “outhouse” was a roof over a hole in some wooden boards that looked out in to the trees. It came with a spectacular ocean view though.

Andy and I watching the sunset

Dinner was veggies and mushy pasta topped with ketchup, but we were starving so we gobbled it down and then walked back down to the beach for a bonfire. In usual form, Laura started off the festivities with song. Jane, Simon and Paress — the majority of other English speakers — joined in while everyone else listened on. Margarita and I got in to a conversation about her life before Clay, her previously messy marriage and later divorce and what it felt like to transition through something like that. It was intimate and raw, and though I couldn’t understand all of what she was saying, the fact I could understand some was a personal triumph. It felt like the first time I was engaging in real and meaningful conversation in Spanish.

Suddenly Margarita stopped talking. Laura had started to sing “Glory, Glory, Alleluia” and out of nowhere, Margarita, who speaks next to no English, knew the words. She joined in followed shortly by Orlando, and soon, for just one song, we were a multi-national choir of North Americans, Europeans and Latin Americans. It struck me, in that moment, how powerful the spirit of song can be and how very lucky I was too be exactly there.

It got a little bit ridiculous after that. Lots of me dancing around with Orlando, who, in an instant, had transformed from an Ecuadorian outdoorsman to a hood-wearing thug. Later Andy and I would sing rap songs off the balcony until even we were sick of hearing our voices.  Shortly after we all crawled in to bunk beds or tents and went to sleep.

We woke up the next day, splashed around a bit again in the ocean, and finally walked home, the whole way along the beach.

The beautiful beach

So long, farewell, bye-bye Bahia

May 2, 2010

I am writing this under a sun umbrella on a little yellow table that looks out on fishing boats bobbing in the Rio Chone, the river near my apartment in Bahia that intersects the Pacific Ocean. Next to me sits a banana milkshake in a frosty mug. I’m not trying to make you jealous – ok maybe a little – but these kinds of picturesque moments just seem to find their way in to daily life in this little bustling beach town.

I’ve been here just over a month and as I get ready to leave I’ve been reflecting on the impressions this place has pushed in to me.

One that will undoubtedly stick is of an old man that lives alone across the street from us. He’s at least 70 and every night, until late at night, he blares what I can only guess to be the Latin equivalent of Frank Sinatra and sits outside — almost always in his underwear – and listens, and looks, and rocks his leg, hour after hour.

When I watch him, I feel transported back to a different era, when life was slower and free. But this is present day Bahia, a small town in a third-world country still mostly removed from the “progress” of modern society.

Men walk up and down streets carrying bread baskets full of hot pan de yucca. Locals rise early to grab the goods at the morning market. Stores have specialties, like tools or piñatas or fans, and sometimes random second specialties, like the clothing store that also sells milk or the restaurant that peddles swimsuits. Kids play outside unsupervised until way past dark and laundry hangs from clothes lines across the city.

It’s not all charming. Water runs when it wants to and public bathrooms almost never have toilet paper. Infants ride haphazardly sandwiched between two and sometimes three adults on the same motorcycle. Houses are poorly built and poorly maintained. Restaurants open and close and stock at random and bugs and rats and wild dogs vie for king.

As much as I’ve battled with the dark side of development, I’ve fallen in love with the pace and intimacy and authenticity of this life. And when the occasional automatic car alarm disrupts the old man’s nightly serenade, or I’m asked to check my bag at the town’s one Target-protégé, I find myself wishing time would stand still here.

I also find myself wishing I could stay. After a month of living in this town, I am starting to almost feel part of it. It’s a new feeling in my short life as a traveler, which in the past seemed to always involve circling the periphery of a place. I know things that require an investment in time and people. I know, for example, not to be surprised when the electricity goes out or that the guy who sometimes stands dazed in the middle of the street used to be a surfing great who is now strung out on drugs. And people know me, at least a few of them, and those that do smile and wave. Maybe it’s because there are so few tourist traps to lure me away in a town of this size, or maybe it’s all in my head, but I feel like Bahia has really allowed me to live with the people.

It’s also allowed me to cultivate a relationship with the environment. After a month of working outside everyday, I now know trees by name and that small bit of knowledge somehow seems to have deepened my connection to them and the place that they live. I love spotting old and strong ones on the hillside and thinking how the ones we’re planting could look like them someday.

And then there are the people that gave me that knowledge, Orlando and Ramon, my bosses and teachers and friends, and quite likely my favorite gifts from Bahia. Beyond showing me how to plant trees and crack seeds and swing and sharpen my machete, they taught me, without knowing, how to appreciate moments and that all anyone really needs is amor y paz and good people to share them with.

And I’ll of course remember the memories I made with them, and all the other people I’ve shared this place with… Andy, Laura, Paress, Clay, Margarita, Sol, the planet drummers that came and went, Jane and Simon and Jen from England, Sam from Washington, Susie from Australia, my favorite waitress from the shish kabob place…

I’ll remember the Spanish/English classes in the park, particularly when we taught Orlando and Ramon “Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes” and Orlando kept pointing to his mouth and saying nose. I’ll remember Orlando teaching us “La La Bamba” and his high and sweet sing-song voice. I’ll remember jumping in the waves and fishing in the sea. I’ll remember sleeping on plastic to protect ourselves from bed bugs and scabies. I’ll remember the laughter that followed from the Spanish and English interpretations of animal noises. I’ll remember the morning market. I’ll remember teaching Orlando to sing our family’s rendition of happy birthday and how hard he practiced to get it right for the big day. I’ll remember Sol forever running around our apartment naked with rusty nails in his hand. I’ll remember riding in the back of trucks. I’ll remember Margarita’s madness. I’ll remember dancing with Laura on the beach and getting a standing ovation when we finished. I’ll remember planting my first tree and the thrill of swinging a machete. I’ll remember watching the sunsets with big, tall Pilsners in hand. I’ll remember Orlando splitting open watermelons with his machete to give everyone a taste during work breaks. I’ll remember Ramon’s sincerity and saltiness. I’ll remember Laura’s beautiful and unifying voice and her brilliant and ever-present light. I’ll remember the smiles and warmth from women. I’ll remember two dollar lunches. I’ll remember the wild wonder of Paress. I’ll remember my favorite house covered in flowers. I’ll remember cold showers and what it felt like to take off my work pants at the end of a sweaty shift. I’ll remember the highs and lows of living communally. I’ll remember Jane and Simon’s spaghetti carbona with a banana-twist. I’ll remember Andy becoming a mountain man in a beach town. I’ll remember paddling through the mangroves. I’ll remember frigate birds. I’ll remember betidos. I’ll remember the ocean. I’ll remember the people who took the time to learn my name.

I’ll remember. I’ll remember.

Trying for Tranquillo

March 26, 2010

It’s just before 11 p.m. on a work night. I’m sitting on the bottom half of the set of bunk beds Andy and I are sharing at our new home in Bahia de Caraquez on the northern coast of Ecuador. As I type by headlamp – there’s no working light in our room – I get whiffs of the bug spray I’ve just bathed in to combat the swarms of mosquitoes that sneak in at night through the giant screen-less window behind our bunk.

This is home sweet home number two on our six month journey, and it’s by far the most rustic accommodations I’ve ever endured. We have no hot water; the kitchen is crawling with critters and our toilet lacked running water for a spell, forcing me to a whole new understanding of how long yellow could mellow.

We are sharing the space with seven other people: my lovely sister Laura, her two friends from college, Paress and Susan, a gal from England named Jen, our volunteer coordinator Clay, his wife Margarita and their adorable son Sol.   

Together – minus the mama and child — we make up the latest team of volunteers for Planet Drum, a nonprofit environmental organization committed to bioregionalism in Bahia. For us that has meant planting lots and lots and lots of trees — Ceibo, Seca, Jaboncillo, Huayacon, Pechiche, Huachapeli and Bototillo — all native to the northern coast of Ecuador.    

Me looking pretty stoked about the trees I´m about to plant at Bella Vista

The work is often labor intensive and exhausting. We swing machetes to clear thick overgrown brush that threatens young life; dig holes and haul seedlings along hillsides to plant them in their new homes. All of this while the pulsing sun beats down on our backs in 90-degree heat. When you lick your lips you taste a mixture of sweat, dirt, bug spray and sunscreen.

Our work begins at 8 in the morning. Orlando and Ramon, two local Ecuadorians, lead us through the day cracking jokes and singing songs in Spanish. They always encourage one good descana – rest – that sometimes lands us in a collection of hammocks that hang shaded just above the dirt under a shack. When a light breeze passes through it feels like heaven.

Our efforts thus far have been focused on a small neighborhood called Bella Vista. The people that live their dwell in dilapidated, often one-room houses made out of bamboo and propped up on stilts. It looks like one puff from the big-bad wolf could blow them down and feels very third-world.

One of the houses in Bella Vista. The bright hanging laundry brightens up the dreary, crumbling home that sits behind it

The people that live in them, though, seem strong and good. They greet us with shy smiles and polite greetings. Every once in a while a few kids will approach and quietly stare in wonder as we dig and lift and plant. It feels like our work is appreciated.

Two kids from Bella Vista hog our ¨descansa¨hammocks and giggle while Andy tickles them

Our shift ends around noon and then, depending on the location of our work-site, we start our 20-minute walk home. As we walk, smelly and covered in dirt, the ocean crashes on our left. If we want we can jump in; or we can wander through the aisles of fresh fruit and vegetables at the market; or we can take a nap. That’s one of the great benefits of being a full-time volunteer: lots of time to do absolutely anything.

Most days we go home, rinse off in a cold shower, fix lunch and venture out in different directions, which as of late for me has meant stopping in for a hot date with a cold coco betido at a nearby ice-cream shop. It’s a mix of fresh coconut, milk, ice and sugar all blended together to create what I have dubbed ‘perfection.’

After a bit of this or that, everyone meets back up around 6 to watch the sunset; a nightly tradition for many locals in Bahia.  First you buy a cold Pilsener – the Ecuadorian beer — from an old man named Peter Mero that’s been running a small corner shop for seemingly centuries.

Then you stroll across the street to grab a seat along a long, white, stucco wall that stretches in front of the ocean and the spot the sun sets in for the evening. It creates soft yellows and oranges while it’s sinking and leaves behind beautiful pinks and purples that reflect on the water once it’s gone. The show is staged between two towering cliffs covered in mossy green and above the crashing waves.

The wind off the water feels amazing after the hot, hot day and everyone just sits and sits and sits… and drinks it in.

Sunset in Bahia, or as they call it here... Caida del Sol

When the light disappears we head home for a big family dinner, settle in for the night and wake up to do it all over again. 

It’s all very tranquillo, as they like to say here in Bahia. For whatever and a million reasons, tranquillo hasn’t always come easy for me, but this, I think I could get used to.

love, love and more love from me..

Update:  Since publication I have come across a rat in our apartment and discovered that what I thought were mosquitos attacking by night are in fact bed-bugs. Slowly Loosing. Grip. On. Tranquillo.