Monday, May 28, 2012

Return to Cuellaje and the Intag

When Lee (MacGyver) asked me if I'd like to spend a weekend out in the Intag with him it was with mixed emotion that I said yes.  I always love it out there in the boonies and like every camping trip there is sure to be an adventure.  The mixed emotion came when I realized how much I'm addicted to my creature comforts like communication by cell phone, the internet, hot water, a stocked refrigerator, a reliable way to wash and dry clothes, etc.  I've become a lightweight with a soft tummy.

I knew that nearly anything could happen out at Lee and Susan's casita in the wild.  It could rain for the three days that we planned and we'd be playing a lot of scrabble and triominoes.   We may or may not get a ride back to civilization on the planned return date.  The primitive road could wash out leaving transport impossible.  We'd be eating beans and rice.  We'd be three days without a shower after grubbing in our earthy ways.

 What the heck! A change of pace is always good and God knows I'm anally (retentive) routine oriented.  Rachel knows this too.  In our nearly two year marriage we'd never spent a night apart other than her trips back to visit her family.  Her encouragement to go was all I needed to realize this would be good for the both of us.  I could tell that she savored having the house to herself to complete her creative projects uninterrupted by me.  I could leave with Lee guilt free.  I also knew that even beans and rice would taste good when we got hungry.  Lee and I would smell equally rank as well.

In the last moment Lee's good friend Tim decided to join us also.  They are the two tallest people in Cotacachi and are quite the spectacle when paired together, especially on a bus with no other gringos.  On our trip out there I got to know Tim and enjoyed exchanging war stories about our home construction.  Tim and Mary have a really lovely home in a different development and Tim was adamant about getting everything right in his build.   That takes enormous perseverance and I learned much from him.

When we arrived in Cuellaje two hours later we were a bit stiff from the two hour rumble over the foggy mountain pass where angels regularly keep the buses from careening off the edge to a certain demise.  We're used to the mountain angels keeping watch over us now so Lee was dozing and Tim and I were animated in our conversation.  The angels were really busy though.

Tim decided to stay in the hostel in Cuellaje.  Later he thumbed a ride out to Lee's abode where we had already received an invitation from the Ayala family to join them on a hike up to their mountain retreat the next day.  Lee knows the Ayalas well and had always wanted to see their primitive hideout so we gladly accepted their invitation.  Tim wasn't sure whether it would work out for him to be out to Lee's house early in the morning so he bowed out of this adventure.  I'm sure that Tim saved himself some really sore muscles in that decision but he missed an adventure that Lee and I will always remember.

Standing left to right is Wilman Jr, Jennifer,  Marlene, and Erica.  Wilman Sr. was busy with his caballo at the moment and unavailable for a photo.  We had but two horses to ride and the mujeres didn't seem to want to ride when offered.  

Wilman Sr. gave me the reigns first.  Lee had shared with him that I had a past and passion with horses.  I felt so privileged in that moment.  I knew that few gringos would experience what we were about to enjoy this day.  The easy ride on the road quickly melted away and we were off on a trail that would challenge even experienced riders, especially sin una silla (without a saddle).

The slopes we quickly encountered were often at 60 and 70 degree grades.  Our horses stumbled but did not fall.  I wanted to show the slope of the climb with a picture but with my camera in my right hand, the reigns in my left and my teeth gripping my  horse's mane, I couldn't get a steady shot.  Shortly after this picture the grade became even steeper and one handed riding with a camera became impossible.  Likewise, the drop offs from the trail became unforgiving.  They put crosses out for mountain traffic fatalities along the road.  There are certainly a few bones in the canyon below belonging to horse and rider that never received any fanfare.

I told Lee afterward that the Ayala family could be easily used in a Walt Disney movie.   In the center of the action would be little Erika with her infectious smile and a twinkle in her eye that told you that you would soon be in for yet another humorous surprise.  Young Wilman is the tranquillo and guapo teenage boy sure to be on every school girl's bedroom wall.   Jennifer, the quiet and camera shy chica guapa  may be a minor role in this movie but will certainly be a leading lady some day soon.  Then there is the glue to the family and any movie they would produce, Marlene.  With a smile constantly on her face and willingness to help everyone, it is no wonder that she and Wilman Sr. produced this wonderful family.

Lee got his chance with riding as well.  His long legs nearly circumvented the girth of these horses making the ride just a little more secure.  The next day our muscles would remind us that we aren't in the condition of years gone by.

 The last stretch of our horseback / hike was without horses.  The jungle like terrain was way too muddy and slippery for a horse with rider.  Wilman gave the horses a slap on the rear and they knew what to do and where to go.  We were on the home stretch to the little cabin and a brief repast.  I was thinking we had already put in a days worth of physical energy.  The walk home although mostly downhill would prove to be an even bigger challenge as the rain clouds gathered.

Destination met.  It felt so good to just sit down.

Little Erika had her job tending the cooking pot for her mom.  We had no idea what we were in store for!

Lee even got his specially prepared vegan diet.  Ok, maybe not especially prepared but sin carne.  Mine was con carne de vacas!

Speaking of carnes de vaca, the origin of my tasty beefy almuerzo quickly became apparent.  The cattle all seemed to know that Wilman had arrived and that he brought with him the tasty and essential micronutients needed to complete their diet. Their sleek coats demonstrated Wilman's understanding of bovine nutrition and care.  As a former beef producer, I applauded his efforts.  As we spoke of the breeds present in his herd we found ourselves engaged in the universal language of cattlemen.  I was at home on the farm.

Wilman and I are not only fellow cattlemen.  We are fellow jinetas (horsemen) as well.  You never put your horse in unnecessary danger.  After our short discussion we chose wisely that riding back would be muy peligroso for both horse and rider.  Wilman gave each horse a swat on the rear and they immediately knew the drill.  Away they went slipping and sliding without riders.  The rest of us faced the muddy return with a mixed feeling of amusement and dread.

Arriving on the main road we were at once happy and exhausted.  The road that hours ago seemed so primitive looked now like a super highway.  Our five hour hike nearly complete we gained a little bounce to our step.  Lee and I laughed about Erica whose antics along the trail were like that of a young goat, capricious.

The comforts of a chair were indescribable upon our return to Camp MacGyver.  My mud soaked shoes recovered and so did my muscles.  I felt so humble.  Lee and I had gone on a journey that would have drained a conditioned athlete yet the Ayala family bounced on home like they could do it daily.  I guess that's because they do.  There's no such thing as a lazy         Ecuadorian in the Intag.  For that matter, there's no such thing as a lazy farmer anywhere in the Ecuadorian Andes.


Anonymous said...

Great post :). Thanks! Mark from Oberlin here.

Patty Grimm said...

Wow, Jim, thank you for sharing this incredible adventure with us. I know how much you appreciated getting back to nature and being around the horses and the cattle.

It's amazing how strong the Ecuadorians are. That's probably why they are so happy and healthy.

Tami (aka Tamster) said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing your adventure and wonderful pictures :)

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Eliot said...

Wow! What a small world! I was a volunteer in the school in Magdalena in 2006-2007 and lived with the Ayala family (made a few trips up the mountain to their "retreat" as well (though not on horseback. I have been bemoaning losing contact with this wonderful family and am wondering if there is anyway you (or Lee) might facilitate me regaining contact with them. My name is eliot (I was known as Elio' during my time there. I can be contacted at eliotschipper AT yahoo DOT com (hoping to avoid robo-spam)

Anonymous said...

I loved your posts. All of them! The wonderful pictures made them even more interesting. I'm a 62 year old American woman of Native American Indian and Scottish descent, Your posts come straight from the heart without the too often condescending tone of non-Indian writers! I too grew up riding horses and on cattle ranches, but couldn't imagine doing it now much less on an unfamiliar horse (even though as kids we werent allowed saddles until we rode well enough over mountain trails without them!) Kudos to you for taking on such a challenge as those slippery mountain trails on horseback! I really loved reading your posts, and hope you continue writing of you and your wife'sr wonderful life in Ecuador!