Thursday, December 8, 2016

Trekking to Antisana

Rabbit Rabbit, December 1st 2016: a day you would typically characterize as cold, wet and snowy in the states. But we are not in the states and the weather today is hot, sunny and calm, as you would expect from this Indian summer in Palugo. This climate is a luxury for us as well because for the past 12 days we have experienced first hand the drastic temperature changes of high altitude, even though we have been just about as close as we can get to the sun! During the past two weeks we completed our final expedition as a semester group. This time we explored the Andean Mountain range, refining our mountaineering and trekking skills. This expedition was broken into three parts: trekking to Antisana, completing mountaineering school on the glacier, and a final expedition of small group solos. During each of these sections, we were led by a variety of teachers - Marcea, Thomas, Michael, and Jovani each rotated in and out. Davicho and Morgan stayed with us the whole time. There were many ups and downs during this expedition but it was such a wonderful last hurrah for us as a team.

Wishing you all well from the Andes!

Trekking to Antisana:
One of the coolest things about expedition is that we left directly from Palugo, tromping right out of the back cow fields. Starting on small trails, which soon opened up to bigger rocky roads, we climbed up the whole way to the hidden villages that overlook Palugo, Pifo, and Quito. The first day we thankfully didn't have to carry our heavy packs, as we had to climb up 800 meters of elevation. Thomas met us in a small town on the side of a mountain, awaiting us with our backpacks and a delicious loaf of zucchini bread Lilah had made the day before. That night we made camp in a valley as the sun set around us, brightening up the rolling hills. It was one of the first of many beautiful moments of this final trek.

We feel like we are in a different world up in the paramo

The second trekking day was more difficult, maybe because of our fully loaded packs, but we also had to climb another 800m, the bulk of which happened during a traverse out of a steep valley that took us about two hours. We pushed ourselves up that ridge, taking breaks and helping the person behind us as we went. We had to laugh through the heavy breathing when halfway up the side three cowboys trotted past us with their dogs sprinting behind them, leading the way up the narrow path. We reached the ridgeline and decided that it was a good place to eat our bagels. It then immediately began to hail as we sat down for our scenic lunch! We quickly pulled out the tent flies, laughing as people disappeared under the green, waterproof material.

This group of thirteen comrades has a way of making hard situations turn into enjoyable ones. We saw this again when later that night, past dark, we were looking for water so that we could set up camp. It was cold and foggy, but it didn’t matter because everyone was working together, trying to help one another stay positive. When we finally set up camp, Davicho and Alessio went off in the fog in search of water, returning two hours later with full water bottles. They reached our campsite just as we were singing for dinner, jumping around in our exhaustion and yelling our song trying to stay warm.

What a beautiful spot to set up our home for the night!

The next morning was one of the most beautiful mornings we have had on semester thus far. The fog had risen, exposing the hidden landscape of the previous night. We were able to see three volcanic giants off in the distance: Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayumbe. Each mountain, a snowy beast; rising from the rock. We spent the early hours until 8:00 AM sketching and drawing the horizon line and appreciating this immense beauty.

Malena, Emma, and Olympia- enjoying a bit of rest time in the tent

Tanner enjoys the warmth of the sun on his face

Colton, Paul, and Christian- enjoying the paramo

The next day was easier because we could see Antisana, our final destination off in the near distance. We arrived later that day to camp without any problem, walking along ridge lines to the Plaza da Armas. Seeing the rocky towers to our right and left, we quickly decided that we wanted to be the first Kroka group to summit this volcano.

The scenery up here is incredible

We camped in the saddle that night. At 4am that next morning we awoke to the dark world to conquer the sleeping mountain. The trek up was easy for everyone, only taking us about 30 minutes until we reached the rocky summit. We were all breathless as the sun rose, the light hitting our tired faces with an early morning glow, excitedly hugging each other and dancing around to stay warm. The day continued on with that genuine excitement - for it was the day of our arrival to our base camp at Antisana. We traveled to the base camp as a solo student group, the teachers popping up every once and a while behind us. Sometimes, we could see Davicho, Marcea, and Morgan diving behind bushes trying to hide, but Tanner could spot them every time! We were very grateful when we arrived to our base camp, and spent the afternoon bathing in ice-cold glacier water, washing our clothing, and resting in warm sleeping bags.

Our base camp was set at 4400m. To put that in perspective for all the New Englanders, that is about the summit of Mount Washington. We were all well adapted to this high level of altitude by now so we were feeling great the next morning when we went to meet the glacier for the first time. Davicho, Michael, and Thomas had us wake up before the sun in order to get the most time on the volcano. None of us had ever been exposed to this extent of mountaineering before, so we all started out at the same level. Imagine us! Falling when putting our crampons on for the first time and not knowing how to casually carry the huge ice axe over the icy terrain. On our walk to the glacier, we saw tiny dots on the high snowy peak: Palugo’s visiting Colorado Outward Bound group was summiting the mountain on that clear morning! This excited and scared us for the next few days. We stopped and had a glaciology class, Thomas proclaiming that he “hoped his PowerPoint was sufficient” as he pointed to the towering glacier behind him. During that day of glacier school we all hobbled around up steep walls of ice, learning how to climb with our ice axes safely. We all enjoyed drinking the ice cold glacier water as it melted down the side of the mountain, refreshing us from all of the day’s hard work. We walked back to base camp that afternoon, exhausted from simply walking. We went to bed early, excited for the even earlier morning the next day.

Glacier school

Practicing ice climbing

When we roped up, the sun was barely peaking over the horizon line. In groups of four, finally feeling like classier climbers, and also kind of like pet animals on leashes, we began to make our way. We got comfortable on the rope teams and did safety drills, which included Lilah and Colton jumping into crevasses, from which we promptly rescued them both. The most fun thing we did that day was something called self-arresting, the point of which is to stop yourself from falling down a steep slope. We trudged up our own steep slope of snow and slid down any way, face first, butt first, feet first. Thomas, Michael, and Morgan had a blast pushing people down, propelling us down the icy slopes with our ice axes in hand, ready to stop on a dime. The sun reflecting off the glacier had drained us by the afternoon, so we slugged back to base camp ready to prepare for our summit attempt the next night.

Practicing self arrests on the glacier

It is exhausting and fun, learning how to climb on the glacier

Olympia- looking strong out on the glacier!

Paul, looking like a pro!

Lilah- showing her skills on Antisana!

Up high on Antisana- what a crew!
The Summit:
We awoke at 10:00 PM, it was Friday night and this was the latest we had been up in months (or maybe the earliest we had woken up?). People thought about home, and how parents would be eating thanksgiving leftovers and getting ready for bed just about now, yet we were here just getting ready to start our “day”. There was no moon out and a light mist was coming down, forming a thin layer of cloud. We gathered our gear that we had prepared earlier that day, crampons…check, harness…check, gaiters…check, helmet…check, headlamp…check, gloves…check, and extra layers…double-check. Off we went trying to follow the faintly worn path as best we could to the glacier. We finally arrived to the ice line and roped up to our teams: Emma, Rosy, and Morgan; Paul, Colton, and Thomas; Alessio, Malena, and Jovani; Aidan, Christian, and Jonathan; Tashi, Tanner, and Davicho; and Olympia, Lilah, and Michael. Each person had 8 meters in front and in back of them; we walked in silence of the night as 17 headlamps bobbing up and down at a tractor’s pace, almost vertical in the blackness. Hair and snot immediately froze, a constant cold wind blowing through our bones, but still we pushed on. For hours we climbed, with few breaks.

Around hour seven, the sun began to rise and the white world began to show itself here and there, but for the most part we stayed in the fog. We continued up, walking over huge snow bridges, using our ice axes to pull us up the near vertical walls. We reached a huge snow wall probably towering at least 90 feet straight up as it was getting later in the morning, Thomas’, Davicho's and Michael’s groups climbed this wall for some scouting, towing their groups behind them. In the whiteout we weren't able to see the summit and sadly the groups had to come back down to the plateau. We realized later that we were only about 200 meters from the summit, but we didn't have time to climb up without risking poor snow conditions on the way down. We all stood on the big plateau right below the summit, the only colors amidst the whiteout. Suddenly the fog cleared, the sun came out, and we were able to see above the clouds for miles, the top of Cotopaxi puffing away in the distant horizon. We all felt at peace in that moment; we were at our own summit, all together as one team.

We descended quickly, because it is not safe to be that high on the glacier in the late morning. We made it up and down Antisana in 12 hours. Back at basecamp everyone fell asleep in the warm sun for hours, exhausted from the physical and mental barriers that we had all pushed through.

Fancy foot work around and over the crevasses!

This landscape keeps us in a state of amazement and wonder

With little time to recover, we set off again, this time without our teachers whom had split us into two groups: Aidan, Rosy, Emma, Paul, Christan and Colton in one group, and Lilah, Olympia, Tashi, Malena, Tanner, Alessio and Jonathan in the other. Our goal was to follow our path on the map through the paramo and meet at a predetermined location at the base of Cotopaxi.

Group 1:
“Our group was Emma, Rosy, Colton, Paul, Christan and Aidan. We were really excited to be on our own, especially because we had the group navigator, Emma. There were many high moments throughout our three days. This included having strangers stop their cars to take pictures with us in the down-pouring hail while we were walking. We used our learned skills to find water and set up camp high in the mountains. One night we set up camp at 2pm because we were so exhausted, and with no adults around we bumped up our bedtime to 6pm! The terrain was beautiful, with rolling mountains and swampy valleys. Our group had a great time finding our way and bribing locals with chocolate to direct us in the right way. Overall it was a great conclusion to our expedition, and we were so relieved when we saw the rainbow over our final destination.”- Rosy and Emma

Group 2:
“After reviewing logistics with Davicho, our group of Alessio, Tashi, Lilah, Jonathan, Olympia, Tanner and Malena all headed out on our solo. We had many fun and challenging experiences. The first day we saw a bush get fried by lightning while we were safe, hiding under a barn. Our last day was epic: we got totally turned around in the morning fog and arrived safely at our pick-up at 10:10 PM (originally 2:00 PM) after walking a whopping 14 hours, which were filled with laughs and tears and strengthening moments. Overall, we wouldn't trade anything that had happened during our solo because it made us all stronger as people.”- Lila

We saw the headlamps of group 2 in the distance and we ran towards each other screaming and hugging so glad to see each other safe. Everyone slept fast on the bus ride back to Palugo, where Marcea greeted us with warm soup and bread. We were so content and tired. This expedition taught us all so much about ourselves and each other that we will always cherish.

We have become such a close family over these four months!

We have less than two weeks left here at Palugo. Each day is packed with activities, from rock climbing with Davicho to finishing the bodega floor. We are busy from morning to night, each day. It is such a bittersweet time now, just appreciating what we all have learned and what we will continue to learn.

Note!!! We all just received a tidal wave of letters from home, some even from the days when we had just left New Hampshire! We are all so happy to have heard from all of you and please know we are thinking of you all, even if you don't receive a letter immediately back from us!

We return to Kroka basecamp in one short week! We look forward to seeing you all at graduation on December 17th at The Orchard School in Alstead NH. Graduation begins at 11:30 AM.

Until then-
Your scribe,

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Between Expeditions- Farm Projects and Solos

Two weeks have passed since we have gotten back from our wild expedition, but it still has felt like only a few days. There has been a rhythmic feeling of routine as we wake up (at 5:00 AM of course!), appreciating the scheduled day ahead. When we wake, we see majestic Cotopaxi across the skyline- her smoke billowing out like a hot-tempered child. It has also been refreshing to reintroduce ourselves to Hacienda Palugo, and the wonderful people who live here. We see the Dammer brothers, their wives and rambunctious children and feel a sense of joy as we walk about the farm. We also are appreciating the beautiful landscape, with distant mountains and rolling hills nearby coloring our scenery. Alessio, Tanner, Colton and Aidan have all been pushing for our meals to become more meat heavy, and so, much to their pleasure, we had the chance to eat guinea pig or “coyee” the other night.

The first week back we focused on independent projects, where in small groups we helped out with tasks all over the farm. We had the chance to choose from four jobs:

-Repairing the garden shed- creating a new support system for the roof
-Building new stairs leading into our living area and converting a hole in the oven to a smaller extra oven
-Woodworking on the new Bodega (gear supply room)-extended roof beams and making window frames
-Building a sweat lodge to use after our solos.

We worked on our independent projects for six hours each day, which in the beginning, seemed like it would be a long time, however it passed quickly as we chatted, listened to Ecuadorian music and learned new skills.

         Colton, Olympia and Rosy worked on the garden shed project
“It was super fun to balance on all the ledges in the shed so we could reach the supports on the ceiling. Balancing and drilling is a pretty intense sport!”-Rosy
“It was fun to do the carpentry aspect because it was new to me.”-Olympia
“I like Davicho, he made me enjoy putting wood together.” -Colton

         Emma, Alessio and Christian worked on the stairs and stove
“Making stairs is really interesting and complicated, we needed to use a lot of force to move the rocks. I hope to use the oven to make cakes and chicken!”-Christian
“I had never worked with stones and cement before and it was interesting and easier then I thought, I might just go home and build a giant cement wall!”-Emma
“It was amazing to see how much you could do with just rocks and cement, even with the imperfections it can still be beautiful.”-Alessio

         Malena, Paul, Lilah and Tanner worked on the bodega
“We got to have a lot of fun with power tools and climbing on roofs. We sanded bricks, and afterwards Paul looked like Donald Trump.”-Lilah
“Well I did power saw the bricks, that was interesting-I was orange for a little bit. That was cool.”-Paul
“I never thought I would be a pro at jig sawing and round sawing.”-Malena
“I really enjoy working with my hands and I'm looking forward to using the skills that I learned later in life because I love to build!”-Tanner

         Tashi, Aidan and Jonathan built the sweat lodge
“Creating a sweat lodge is an enjoyable task but imaging everyone gathered in it is the best part of all!” -Tashi
“I enjoyed using geometry I learned in school that at the time seemed irrelevant. It was really satisfying to use it and have a final project.”-Aidan
“Mi proyecto independiente es el temazcal, lo realizamos trabajando en equipo y junto con la ayuda de Thomas, fue muy integrante porque trabajamos mucho y es un proyecto queue function muy bien, y todos disfrutamos del temazcal.” -Jonathan

We finished our independent projects on a Thursday and that next day, after the sun peaked out over the mountains, we all tromped off to begin our solos. In our hands we only had warm layers, our knife and a full water bottle for our 50 hours alone. For the solos, we were brought to a previously decided location scattered around the farm, most of which were on empty cow pastures. We were told to try to not move from a six-foot radius of our choice on our piece of land. We were given water and tea throughout those three days, but were restricted from use of our warm sleeping bags and food. We made ourselves at home in our new spots, creating sleeping areas under the dense trees. Each of us sat ready to learn something new about ourselves over the course of this important experience.

It was such a different yet exciting concept to be alone for this time, especially after spending the past three months, day and night beside these thirteen people. Everyone had a different experience, but all of our experiences were positive. We woke up that Sunday morning and were picked up around 11:00 AM, which we determined based on where the sun was in the sky. Directly from our solo we trudged along the path to the sweat lodge that had been made during the independent projects. We were weary and exhausted, but as we walked over the hill we began to hear a beating drum, which we followed until we stumbled upon Marcea and Morgan. In front of them they had a huge array of pineapple, bananas, carrots, beets and apples. We all indulged in the abundance of fruits and veggies before us, quenching that hunger that had been resonating in our stomachs. After we ate our fill we crawled through the small opening to the sweat lodge, the steam billowing out as the flap opened. We took turns going in and out of the structure to lie in the stream next to us when the heat was too much to bear. We all sat inside as a group and breathed in the hot air, bringing a close to the past 50 hours of being alone.

This past week has been jammed full with academics, something we had spent a bit less time with during our month long expedition. We had fallen behind on our book, Inés of my Soul, so for two full evenings we read 60 pages a night, staying up as the clock ticked later and later, nudging the person next to us when they started dozing off. We were also assigned to do an independent project on a famous leader from South America. Olympia has Eva Peron, Paul and Colton have Fidel Castro, Rosy and Lilah have The Mirabel Sisters, Malena and Aidan have Rigoberta Menchú, Alessio and Emma have Jose Muica, Jonathan has Gabriel Garcea Marcas, Tashi and Tanner have Pablo Neruda and Christian has Mercedes Sosa. We were all asked to put on a theatrical performance enacting our person. We explained about their life, and shared important moments about their past. Colton and Paul had us rolling on the floor laughing, Aidan dressed up as a girl, and Rosy and Lilah set off an explosion. Each performance was amazing and we could see the effort that each person had put into his or her project.

Our rhythm here at Palugo must come to an end for now because we leave for our final expedition today. We will be climbing and attempting to summit Antisana- a mountain of over 6,000 meters. After attempting to summit we will split off into small groups for solos to our final destination, the base of Cotopaxi. The expedition is planned to be 12 days, a good deal shorter than our last one! After this expedition we will head back for our final two weeks at Palugo.

Heading out for our final expedition!
Until then-
Your scribe,


Thursday, November 17, 2016

A Strenuous Journey

      We sing a song at the beginning of each meal, and one of them begins with “Goin' up to the mountains, I ain’t coming down till the morning. Goin’ up, set my soul free, I ain’t coming down in chains.” Looking back unto this song, we realize how true it is. There is a light feeling in the group, a “freeness” now that we have come down from the highlands by bike and on foot. In each one of us there has been noticeable change, an important change. As our expedition closes there is a new sense of maturity in the group, developed over the past month of adventuring. On our expedition there was an energy of not only surviving, but also thriving in those twenty-five days filled with challenges but also many moments of self-discovery - pushing ourselves more mentally, physically and emotionally than we thought we ever could. The days of expedition are filled with an exciting energy, one that Thomas and Marcea definitely bring out even more. Throughout the expedition we have had our teachers switching out after a week or so, having each of the Dammer brothers joining us for a specific segment of the expedition based on their interests and specialties. This was such a great way for us to be able to learn from so many amazing people, each of who had special ways of teaching.


         Since the last blog update, we have had an insane amount of notable things happen. We transitioned to the homestead of Edwardo, a quaint English man with a quiet personality, who was mentioned briefly in the last post. The ride to his house was an amazing transition from trekking to resting. The sky tore apart as we loaded ourselves into the back of a truck and Malena, Tashi, Alessio and I stood in the downpour washing the days of crusted dirt off of our bodies. We spent a few magical nights in Edwardo and Patricia's home, camping on the front yard, eating dozens of pieces of homemade breads and jams as we regained our energy. Edwardo’s wife is a talented basket weaver, so we were lucky enough to be able to have her as our teacher for even just a few days, learning the traditional craft. At first it was a struggle to create the form of a small basket, but soon we were all weaving the thin vines together with a smooth flow. Everyone was talking about what they were going to be using their small baskets for, some said pencil cases, while Malena talked about using hers as a cookie jar, which was definitely the best idea thrown around.

         We continued our movement to a beautiful coffee plantation nestled next to a fast flowing river, the Rio Lindo. There, we took our time bathing and appreciating the cold water flowing around our bodies. Colton, Lilah and Christian were ecstatic to be near coffee, a luxury we weren't used to, and they savored cups of it at breakfast with big grins on their faces. We rested ourselves in the hammocks after a coffee planting, harvesting and roasting lesson led by the owner of the property, Pablo.

There are countless new species for us to learn about as we travel

         The next morning we were greeted by our old friends; the bikes. They had carried us to the hot springs the week before and were now ready to get us moving for three more days to the river Mulate. The river was at an elevation of 600 meters while we were at a whopping 2000 meters, which makes the biking sound like a downhill breeze. Let me assure you that it wasn’t! The next three days were the hardest biking days we experienced throughout the previous twenty days. It was both a mental and physical push up the never-ending hills, and just when we would see a bend that we thought indicated a downhill, it would always end up being a steeper hill to climb! On the second day there was an hour gap between Alessio and Tanner, who led the pace, and the sweep because of the time consuming hills.

An excerpt from Tashi’s journal describes it well:

“Body hot, sticky hair, and sweltering sun. Legs that never cease that constant motion as if the world lay on your shoulders. Continue to pedal, to ignore the pain. Butt, back and thighs fall in dismay as another slope taunts you from behind the bend.”

         We all met in the town for lunch - it was a Saturday and everyone was out and about. In each town there is a sports arena where a game is played called “Equ-volley.” This game is basically volleyball with a higher net and only played with a soccer ball. Our energy was restored quickly, and Aidan, Tanner, Alessio and Tashi immediately jumping in to play with the locals. They picked up the game quickly, laughing and yelling with a new spring in their step. 

         The last scheduled biking day was a long one; we awoke before daylight in order to leave with the sun, as we had to cover about 70 kilometers or as Colton says 70,000 meters. During those 70 km we descended into the cloud forest, racing our bikes over the pebbled rocks, the visibility so low that you would only be able to see the bike in front of you momentarily until it slipped away into the fog. It was our mission to avoid the giant mud puddles and sharp bends, both of which had the potential to throw you off your bike. Some of us were luckier than others with that, but everyone rode on safely and smiling. Another highlight from that day was biking along the road and promptly bathing ourselves and our sweaty clothes in any passing river. The coolness of the water was amazing and would motivate us up that next hill until finally we arrived to the canyon of Rio Blanco. Everyone was overjoyed, warm dinner was waiting for us and we were more than ready to say goodbye to our bikes.

         That’s when the teachers dropped some news onto us, Rio Blanco was running too low and we had to decide weather or not to bike to our new destination 20 km away. Thirteen miles doesn't sound like much but let me tell you after three consecutive days of biking uphill we weren't so keen on the idea of having to bike out of the current canyon. But as a group we decided that it would be the best thing to do. We would be completing the expedition, leaving from Palugo and arriving to the river completely by the power of our own bodies and our movement. So we went on, pushing ourselves out of the canyon and over the rolling hills to the nearby watershed of Rio Mulate, where a fuller more alive water source was waiting for us. We set up camp and practiced using our new boats, bright yellow gnu’s, and a gigantic kataraft. There was happiness in the air: we had made it to the river, to the next part of the journey. It was wonderful to soak in the water and get to know this completely new environment.

Glad we weren't on that bus!

         We started off the next morning with a strong feeling of being alive. We went upstream in groups to run a few more technical rapids in the gnu’s and to remind our bodies all the intricacies of paddling on white water. The kataraft is comparable to a monster truck or to a tractor, plowing over the waves, but since the water was so low we had to push the “tractor” over some of the rapids lacking water. The ride was super enjoyable and short to the campsite that day, and we paddled class two and three rapids as we traveled downstream. We were most impressed by Jonathan and Christian, who had never been paddling in a boat in their lives! We set up camp that night above a small beach on a small grassy piece of land. We collected fruit and relaxed, swimming over to the small waterfall on the other side of the bank to take showers, the water shooting over the cliff on to our bodies, us shrieking from the refreshing cold.

Tashi and Emma, enjoying the afternoon

Gunwale up!

Each moment on the river is such a joy

It takes a team to get things done around here!

         That night, Thomas and Mathias gave us the option to stay another day at this wonderful campsite in order to have a day before expeditions ends to rest, have a skills check, and practice our movement in the boats. There were mixed feelings about it from our group. Some of us wanted to continue on while others thought we should rest when given the chance. So we did a blind vote, which resulted in 6 on 6, a dead tie. But fear not, Waldorf school had taught Aidan some creative decision-making and he proposed a three-stage game to decide what we would do: 1. rock paper scissors 2. tug of war and  3. coin toss. The group opting to stay took a grand sweep of all three categories, so we stayed the extra day.

         The girls woke up early to be able to look at the beautiful wildlife by the river, seeing toucans and toads and even an otter, which were curiously watching our morning yoga with Morgan on the beach. Up at Palugo there aren't a lot of wild animals for us to observe so this was a luxury. The morning was spent carving new spoons, swimming in the river, reading our book, journaling, and working on academics.

"Yoga on the beach"

         In the afternoon we worked on soloing canoes and honing our fire making skills. The fires illuminated the surrounding beach as the sun began to set creating a glow on the faces of those successful with their work. We sat around the cooking fire that night sharing, laughing and talking with one another. It felt like the difficulty of the expedition was behind us and there was a lightheartedness in the air.

This river is flipping amazing!

         The next day paddling was a long one but still so enjoyable. We had decided as a group to leave behind nearly all the personal and group gear to lighten the load of the kataraft. This included leaving behind our tents, our sleeping pads, our sleeping bags, and even our eating bowls. We only had one more night of expedition and believed we could survive the night without any of those luxuries. We hit many rapids with technical difficulties but on the flat parts Thomas would lighten the mood by jumping in the surrounding gnus, creating big water fights that ended with everyone in the water at many points through out the day. We got much further than anticipated without even noticing, about 15 km, and we chose a campsite right near where the Rio Blanco and the Rio Mulate converge. This confluence creates a massive, powerful body of water churning and splashing.

Mathias and David expertly carving their way down the river

         Some animals, including African Buffalos and an army of ants, whom had created ant highways across the fields, inhabited the campsite. We all cuddled up that night in the cold underneath the single tarp we had brought. Most of the night was spent awake, trying to stay warm next to the others, with buffs and hoods covering our whole faces. Eventually the sun rose and so did we. We loaded up the kataraft with our limited gear and set off for the huge water of the two rivers. The rapids were a lot bigger with the combination of the rivers, and the pace was much more sustained than the stop-and-start of the previous day. We came upon a huge rapid and Alessio and Colton were the first to volunteer to go down. They chose a risky route directly down the center of the thrashing swelling water. At one point we saw Colton fall out of the boat, everything except for his leg and than in a blink of  an eye, he was back in the boat, and successfully made it the rest of the way down. We got to our take out point early, and were greeting and treated by Don Francisco, the father of the Dammer brothers. He spoiled us with yucca bread as we loaded up the truck and piled on to an amazing charter bus with plush seats. We all fell asleep in an instant, exhausted. The five hour car ride slipped away like a dream, going in and out of sleep, until we arrived at home base, Palugo, where a warm meal and fresh sheets were awaiting our tired bodies.

Enjoying the rapids with Mathias

Feeling victorious

         We are recovering from the strenuous expedition, and we also have so much ahead of us during the next two weeks. We are going to be involved in big building projects around Palugo, and we also have a three-day, two night solo that we are all greatly anticipating. It takes a long time to receive and send letters out (about two weeks) so don't fret if you haven't heard from one of us recently, letters are on their way! Time seems to be truly flying by, and we can’t believe it has already been thirteen weeks since the start of semester. Wow!

Your scribe,
-Rosy Bell

Friday, November 4, 2016

An Expedition of a Lifetime

Look close! Can you find the students?

    We have arrived in Piñan, a community located amid valleys of the “Paramo”, or highlands. It is day 12 of our expedition, the mid-point, and it has been incredible to see the difference between this expedition and our first one back in New England. The food, the culture, and the scenery are very distinct. Also, the addition of our two-team members has made life full of flavor. For example, nightly meetings are now often spoken in Spanish. Those who came into the group only knowing how to say “Hola, ” can now be heard forming complete, mostly coherent sentences.

Malena and Colton, enjoyed a well deserved rest

    The scenery continues to amaze us as we travel through the villages

    Our two new members, Jonathon and Cristian, are from Ecuador, but were raised in completely different ways from one another. Jonathon is 19 and is from San Clemente, the highland community where we had our homestays in the beginning of our expedition. He has shown to be soft spoken and simultaneously extremely driven.  We were lucky to be able to meet his family, both immediate and extended during our visit. We learned about how skilled his grandfather is in the craft of woodworking. It has been so wonderful and special to be able to connect with Jonathon even more after learning and experiencing his home. Christian lives in Santa Rosa, a valley that is much lower in altitude than San Clemente and thus warmer. When Cristian explains his home to me, a smile spreads across his face, as he tells me about the beauty and diversity of the animals, as well as the peaceful feeling of being in his community in the “Cloud Forest”. Cristian has a light and cheery spirit, which is appreciated by all who surround him. They are both great athletes, which was even more apparent when in our first few weeks we were adjusting to the altitude.  The eleven American students are trying to be proactive in our communication with them. Alessio has definitely been the most successful, due to his fluency in Spanish, but the rest of us have also been stepping up to the challenge. Our group has noticed that when we are feeling really tired after a long day; we begin to think in basic Spanish, which can be quite comical. In general, the whole group has grown into and embraced the chaos of expedition and we are learning to coexist peacefully more and more as the days roll by.

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Cristian, enjoying another great day of biking

    Jonathon- excited to share his home with the group

    The last blog post ended with us at the “Casa del Cerro”, the mountain hut. The next morning, we rose at 3:00 AM to begin a 7-hour hike to the summit of Mount Imbabura. It was incredible leaving the house in the dark and later watching the sunrise over the mountains, glowing pink, purple and yellow. We all stopped in amazement to watch the day begin. On we continued for hours at a steep vertical climb. After seemingly endless walking up the tall grassy mountainside, we buckled ourselves into climbing harnesses and continued up an even steeper grade.  We all finally summited, exhausted from the climb. We completed the climb with absolute optimism, even Colton who sometimes experiences a fear of heights.  After we hiked down, the rest of the day was relaxing. We found ourselves exhausted and triumphant, and cozied up about the mountain hut, grateful to finally rest.

    At the summit!
    The next morning we continued on our way, and headed down to say our final good-bye to San Clemente, and with that- we headed off pedaling into the day. We began by going down a huge hill, breaks squeaking from all directions as we plummeted hundreds of meters. The biking that day was wonderful as we passed through many small villages. We have found that our group favors riding through forests and less populated areas but on the other hand, it is such a great cultural experience to be in the towns as well. When we ride through villages, children lean out of their buses to yell “Hello!” at the passing gringos. At the end of the day, we finally arrived at our camp outside the town of Cotocachi at an early hour, and we topped the day off with a much appreciated ice cream stop.  Our camp was located at a pristine theater (with real toilets!). We set up the tarp and fell asleep that evening quite quickly.

    The sun rose the next morning for the beautiful day of Emma´s birthday; our singing voices waking her to greet the day. Marcea had the great idea to get breakfast in town. So off we went to eat a plate loaded with huevos, pan, queso, arroz, café y carne. You could say that as a result, we were then carrying a few extra pounds! After breakfast we pushed off, hoping to climb 600 meters that day with our goal being the famous hot springs, tucked into the hills. This 20 kilometer day had sounded like a breeze compared to our other 50 to 60 kilometer days of the past, but it was definitely one of our hardest days. The route was hard to navigate because of all of the rough single track we had chosen to take. Traversing around, down, through and up huge valleys tired us all out. We soon had to take out our headlamps and continue on, carrying our bikes down narrow waterfall paths and over closed fences. Tashi held us together by leading us in a group song when our spirits were especially low, and our chorus of perseverance echoed around the surrounding valleys.  We paired up in twos, riding now in the dark, the hills seeming to be more abundant. The sign for the hot springs appeared and Marcea told us we had two more kilometers to go- straight up the whole way. With that goal in mind, we pushed ourselves to the finish, the hot springs, a warm dinner, and our tents set up waiting for us when we arrived. The warmth of the meal warmed our spirits, and we all piled into bed as this biking leg of the expedition had come to an end.

    When we awoke the next morning we said good-bye to our bikes and hello to our big trekking backpacks. The morning started a little late, but we finally got on our way up a steep mountain, first taking the wrong path, bushwhacking to find the new one, and finally having to go back down half of the mountain to get to the correct one. All we could see once we got onto the ridge were waves of golden grass, moving like the ocean in the wind. We followed a small footpath for hours, winding around and around across mountains. Then the sun began to set and we quickly pulled out our headlamps, continuing to follow the small trails. Having found no water sources throughout the day, our teachers went off ahead to hunt for one, and we continued walking in a line in the darkness.  We followed the glow of their headlamps, which seemed like stars against the dark sky. Upon finding a source of water, we quickly set up camp and were kindly told to eat dinner in our tents. The evening ended with a set of glowing tents, lit by headlamps and our group eating a well-deserved dinner, exhausted and happy.

Each day brings new and exciting challenges!
A beautiful spot to camp
    The next day we started out early, as we wanted to avoid arriving to camp in the darkness.  The day was again filled with the glorious sea of golden straw. The teachers left us alone at points, allowing us to participate in a group solo to reach a particular meeting spot. We walked high up along the ridge, feeling that the day was the perfect temperatura, the Ecuadorian sun not too hot, the breeze not too strong. We finally saw the meeting place several hundreds of meters below and we all considered what to do next. We slipped over the edge and scooted our way down, slipping and sliding down the golden waves. After the slope we found a wonderful campsite alongside a flowing clear river. We were able to bathe and wash off our grimy bodies from the past few days. The mountain stream was a wonderful place to wash away the layers of dirt. We fell asleep, feeling light and clean, with the noise of the gargling river singing us a lullaby.

High along the ridge

    The teachers had warned us that we would be spending the next day alone as a group. It was only a five-kilometer hike that day, so we left camp at around 8:30, leaving no trace behind. The walk was a beautiful and direct one into the little village of Piñan. Piñan is a community of about 200 people. We ate our peanut butter and jelly wraps in a field, spending an hour lounging around before officially entering the village. It was nice to spend time together as a group without the teachers. It forms a deeper connection between the group, learning how to more actively communicate in both languages.

    It was super nice to have a rest afternoon as well as a lazy morning to shower, relax, and regroup in the lodge of Piñan. We all sat around a big window, which looked out over the village, taking note of their mud huts and thatched roofs. Michael gave us a history lesson on the village, telling us that it was customary to be taken care of in Piñan. It is what is expected for them culturally. Because they live simply, people from the “outside world” constantly desire to help by giving donation. This reality has both its pros and cons, he explained to us. We ate an abundance of food during our short layover, basking in relaxation. We left that next afternoon waving goodbye to the kids and the adults, and we hiked off through the village. We made our way to a nearby lake, about four kilometers away. It was an easy day for us. Tanner, Alessio, and Colton wandered off once we arrived at the lake. They had brought some fishing supplies and were keen on trying it out.  Sadly they were not able to catch any fish, only one dead one, but their spirits were still high when they came back to camp. The fog slowly set in as the night came on. We all piled into one tent, all 13 of us reading together our group book, Ines of my Soul.

What a place to set up camp!

    The next morning we awoke early for the long day ahead of us. We would be descending 1500 meters from the highlands, into the great cloud forest. The path was a steep down hill and we had to learn to move with the mud because it had rained. Marcea, Alessio and Tashi were at the front of the pack. They looked at each other and began to sprint down the muddy path, with fully loaded backpacks. They would sprint for 5 minutes and then wait for the rest of the group to come slowly sliding down. The transition from the long golden grass to the green mossy forest was in such a short time that it was almost incomprehensible. We crossed beautiful streams, our rainboots keeping our feet dry. We eventually came to a road we walked for awhile, collecting fruit from bushes along the roadside. Our group got a little split up, and before long we saw Aidan and Olympia in the back of a local truck and we followed suit, piling in, hitching a ride to our new destination. We were to stay with a wonderful couple living on the mountainside where will be learning how to make our own baskets. The next few days will be rest days, learning new skills and taking time to reflect on our expedition thus far.

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I spy a happy traveler!

Making our way into the lush lowlands
Our next blog will come after we return to Palugo, and have spent some time working and learning on the farm, as well as preparing for our final expedition in the mountains. We hope that you are enjoying reading about our journey, and we can't wait to hear from you via snail mail, as our journey continues!

Your scribe,