We are less than a week into this journey and I have to say it has already been one of the best experiences of my life. We flew into Ecuador through Panama and arrived at the airport (on time!) to be greeted by a man holding a sign with our names on it.
Lex is a wiry Dutch guy that has been living in Ecuador for 20 years and happened to be our ride to Alausi. The ride was 5 hours South into the Andes so I figured along the way it would be fun to get to know our driver and his knowledge of Ecuador. Once we got Lex talking he wouldn’t stop. He told us about everything.
- Quito( 9,000ft alt.) is about 50 kilometers long but only 5 or 6 k wide
- You should be able to bargain most purchases by 30 to 40%
- At the random policia road blocks, always have your documents ready when the cop comes to the window (out of courtesy) and it will most likely get you out of being searched and extorted (even though the policia usually just wave gringos through without stopping). A good bribe is $10-$20.
- Don’t take the buses around big cities if you can avoid it. Taxis are cheap enough (never more than a couple dollars in the city). Take the cabs are government cabs with a registration number on the side.
- Gas is approximately $1 a gallon.
- Although there is a huge discrepancy between the rich and the poor (60% in poverty) it is not likely that many people are dying of starvation. There are a few reasons for this: 1) The land is fertile you can put about anything in the ground and it will grow (even though there is a high rate of malnutrition because the majority of people grow things like potatoes and corn instead of things like broccoli and spinach). 2) The majority of people have very strong relationships in Ecuador, if one person does not have a job or cannot afford to feed themselves they usually have a friend or relative who is more than willing to help out (In other words, people take care of each other). 3) The people work together to empower themselves. For example, if the government tries to cut labors wages or indigenous peoples rights, the community will come together and strike putting up road blocks and blocking access to businesses. It usually takes a day or 2 before the people’s needs are met. Because of this many people can achieve fair wages and have access to free healthcare. As Lex described it: if the President tried to cut peoples healthcare he would be run out of office the next day. (Ecuador has historically had many presidents kicked out of office by the people, the longest sitting president is the current one at 5 years) 4) They are a left leaning social democracy that is currently making huge strides to reduce the income disparity and create more equality.
On the way to Alausi we stopped for coffee, money, and mangos. As we continued higher into the Andes the people on the sides of the roads sporadically became more indigenous. The whole feeling of being here felt surreal like something out of a national geographic. Day became night and the fog rolled in. After a few more visionless hours maneuvering the curvy roads we arrived at Hotel de Picatumba on the outskirts of the small Andean community Alusai (elevation 11,000ft). We met The Gypsies, camera crew, and Free the Children members just in time for dinner. We ate, exchanged stories, and plans for the next day. Then we went to bed happily after 14 hours of travel.
Today was unbelievable. To start a day in Miami, Florida and end it high in the Ecuadorian Andes was an incredible and enjoyable change of pace. We are happy to be with friends (new and old) and look forward to starting on the Guayahualco water project.
The next day, we awoke, ate breakfast, and headed into the Alausi market. People from 5 different indigenous villages meet here to exchange goods. Mainly these goods were produce with the overwhelming majority being potatoes (about $10 for a 100 pound bag).
I tried some flavorless ice cream in the market which I later found out was actually raw eggs and mayonnaise mixed together (not sick yet). A few observations we made: We were the only gringos in the market, we were about 2 feet taller than everyone else, and surprisingly enough not that many people starred at us. The villagers were nice people who were quick to smile.
Next we took the van into the a nearby community to see a women’s project set up by Free the Children. We sheered a sheep and learned how the women of the community process the wool to create garments. For one sweater it takes about 4 pounds of wool to make which takes about 1 month to weave, and sells for about 1 weeks’ worth of food for the family (you can do the math). The reason for this project is so empower the woman by allowing them to create extra income. It is not enough to change their lives but it is enough to maybe send one of the children to school. I bought a sweater and Christina bought a hat and scarf. The women were very thankful.
After lunch we went further into the village to the house of one of the project member’s Maria and her son Sebastian. We spent the rest of the afternoon farming potatoes with them. Sebastian was 4 years old and he was the hardest worker out there.
We learned that the dogs eat the worms that eat the potatoes. We filled up a 100 pound bag and learned that Maria has 9 brothers and sisters, whose families live together, which is common in villages like these. We went to Ian’s place in Riobamba and played soccer with some locals. Ian is the head of Free the Children in Ecuador.