good road facilitates better communication and transportation; encourage the flow of ideas, talents and resources. With better infrastructure - Goods move, People move and Ideas move!
How much mud is considered too much? And how many times do you have to walk through it???
For me, once is enough! But I have to go through twice in my trip deep into the Oriente mountain jungle. And first time, 7 hours walking all the way in the mud and in the rain. And quite a few times, knee-level mud and many times, high above my feet and my bota (I called it the peasant's boots) got stuck so often that I fell so many times onto the mud. I was like a baby making the first step in life except that I was learning to walk in the mud. Second time, when we have to return to "civilisation" and it took me 6 hours. Never before in my 15 months of travel have I been so dispirited and when we have to trek our way back, the thoughts of walking through the mud again, made me weak.
Not that I have never been through mud. In my military training, I had done countless of training in the mud and even slept on it. But this time, it's a different terrain and I can't imagine so much MUD everywhere. Besides, I had problem with my back and right ankle, I just could not jump down from some obstacles or exert too much strength in some path.
But for the campesinos (peasants) in the Oriente region, mud is almost their daily affair and to many, their lifetime affair. Can you imagine that LIFE S(T)UCKS ! When I was in a village, witnessing young children as young as 3 years old, walking in the mud, and playing around in mud, you have to sympathise with these children that started their life with the MUD.
And with such bad road condition, these campesinos are being denied by what is considered basic in life: Easy access to daily supplies, clean water, proper sanitation, basic health care, education, diversified economic activities to generate self-sufficiency. The rest of the country makes progress while they are stuck. Can't even think about cinema, shopping mall, game arcades and ...etc. And I can safely say these are the essentials that many of us in developed nations and perhaps the major cities of the 3rd world countries take for granted.
So much about my MUD philosophy but I can't help it as I went through one of the disheartening trips of my journey. I have witnessed so much poverty, unjust, deprivation that I have been trying to engage myself in some of these countries that I traveled. I am the Privileged one!
On that morning of departure, I woke up at 5.30am but it was raining so heavily that we delayed our setoff time to 7.30am. We had another problem - our jeep was running out of petrol and Fernando did not know why we could not get petrol on the way to Indanza. Of course, we knew the answer later.
The jeep took off in the bumpy, mountain road. Edgar and me were sitting behind the jeep while Carol was the co-driver with Fernando. The rain made the road visibility poor and quite a number of times, my head hit the roof when the jeep stumbled across some shallow trench. We went around some small town searching for petrol but in vain. Stopped for a breakfast (what else but rice with chicken again!) Oh yes, I have to request for the coffee to be caliente (hot). It seems to me that in many places in Ecuador, there is a tendency to serve food and coffee lukewarm. I prefer my food, soup and coffee hot especially in the cold climate at high altitude.
Fernando asked me how much mileage could we get per gallon. Making a rough calculation, we took a gamble to drive the jeep all the way to Pananza. 3 times, we had to cross through a gushing stream that flow from the mountain across the road. Each time, Carol turned around and gave me a worrying look. She had some bad experience in Bolivia where her pickup stuck in the mud and she had to get off to push the vehicle.
After 2 hours, we got to the end of the road where the small little town - Pananza stood. We started covering ourselves with poncho and plastic. Ready for the walk and actually I had no idea how long it will take as I heard different duration - 2-5 hours. I was feeling more assured of trekking through the terrain with my pair of bota. Passed the last wooden house and I saw that we had to descend through a 50m-mud path. That's when I started feeling that perhaps the road ahead is going to be challenging.
As we walked down a narrow track, Edgar pointed to the far horizon and said that is where we are going. We couldn't see too far as the drizzling rain made the land misty. "How far to the village?" "Maybe 7km measuring straight line on the map!" Well, you have to imagine with the undulating terrain, it could be doubled the actual distance.
A mule came with 4 pieces of heavy wood and its master was walking behind. We stopped for a conversation. Carol was sympathising with the mule and we could see even the mule was struggling in the mud track. Sigh... in this route, human and animal share the same destiny!
Rain made the tide in the streams and especially river, deeper and flowing more rapidly. We crossed the first wooden bridge almost 1 storey high and it was constructed in such a way that you need a wooden ladder to climb up; then carried the ladder to the other side of the bridge before you could climb down. The second river crossing was even more challenging. An improvised narrow timber log across the river. Edgar and Fernando had to hold a branch on each side of the river so that Carol and me could balance ourselves across.
Then a steep mud slope appeared infront of us. As I was crossing a stream and trying to avoid some soft mud, I took my 1st fall. Splash! Yuck! I was more concerned about my camera than myself. Among them, I was the one with 2 packs, one daypack and infront of my body, one small pack with camera, zoom lens, tripod. It probably weighed 8-9 kg! After that fall, I told myself "heck, I am just going to bash through all the mud now!"
Orange, black, brown, chocolate - different colour mud! Hard mud, soft mud, sticky mud, mushy mud! Kept falling; kept getting stuck and the guys had to help pulled up my bota while I struggled to get myself out of the mud. Pup! Carol had some fair share too though I was the worst.
"Rapido, rapido!" Quick, quick!!! Each time, Edgar and Fernando had to utter. If you do not walk quickly and sometimes, hopping; you get stuck and sank deeper into the mud.
"Por aca, Tay!" Through this way!!! In the beginning, both guys had to help us indicating which path to take.... Learning how to identify which path will not sink you was crucial. In some part of the route, there are constructed timber log tracks. However, many are damaged by the landslide or covered with muddy water that you have to guess where to step. A wrong step will result to another stuck.
We trekked down a narrow, rocky gorge, crossed a stream and river. As we were taking a rest, I asked, "Why did they choose to live here?" "Good question!" Edgar mentioned but that triggered off Fernando's emotion. Born and raised in this region, had his education in Cuenca, worked for 2 years in US; for the last 15 years, he has been involved in trying to improve the life of the campesinos in the Oriente. He spoke passionately (but I could sense a pain in him) in Spanish and I could half understood, half guessed the rest of the meaning. It's a sad story and this is not a simple and straight question.
More mud, more climbs and each turn of the path, looking ahead of me the next 500m of mud track just punctured me. After awhile, 3 of them went ahead of me and left me to figure out my steps. Knowing that no one will be around to help and there's no turning back, I had no choice but to help myself.
As we carried on our journey.... we met only a few campesinos.... the men would always come up to us and exchanged a brief handshake, the women would do so if they were with their men. Unlike the other region, Carol and me noticed they do not greet each other with kissing on one side of the cheek rather just handshake- more so like soft touch.
We met 4 young men, who were conducting livestock survey for the government. One of them asked if we were on our way to 27 de Noviembre pueblo and I realised that the pueblecito (small village) we were heading was named after the founding date. One of them told me that the route after would be descending so it's a little easier to walk but it will be tough on our return trip. We also met a young chap from the coast of Ecuador. He is a teacher and came to 27 de Noviembre to teach for 5 months and now he's returning to the coast.
That surprised Fernando and Edgar as not many teachers and doctors wanted to visit this region because of the poor road and living condition. Fernando and his friends have tried for many years to recruit more students and professionals and anybody from the city. However, the response has been less than favorable with some even asking to be paid to do volunteer work in the region.
I didn't find that descending was easier to walk. On the contrary, the mud always carried you down and making it a little unstable to balance. The bota proved to be a Must Have in this region. It's waterproof, covered up to almost your knee and gives a firm grips. It cost around US$4 for a pair and does a good job.
Finally, after 6 hours+ of walking, we saw the village-27 de Noviembre among the lush green surrounding. From the top, we saw a flat plain with houses built sparsely scattered in a big circle. That's where we were heading ...... The rain stopped and I took off my poncho as it hindered my walking though it shielded most of the mud. I looked at the village and told myself, just slightly more than 500m and it's solid ground.
I didn't expect that the last 500m were as muddy too. And I even took a final fall, this time with nothing to shield me. A family on the way out to Don Juan Bosco (another town) looked at me struggling to get up and then we exchanged handshake "Como estas?" "Cansado!" I can't even offered some polite term that I am fine instead it was I am tired.... Really!
This family of 3 (father, mother and daughter) were leaving for another town and it will take at least 3-4 hours of walk given they are used to walking in the mud. And at Pananza, they need to catch a transport another hour away. The clock was almost 4.30pm and they could be walking in the twilight zone. Or I was told they could be taking another route walking all the way to Don Juan Bosco as bus service is infrequent.
We crossed one small stream and I washed my bota with the running water. But it's futile as there's a 15 m path to climb and it was even more muddy that the last 500m and I got stuck again. Damn! Wondering why the villagers never bothered to make a nice entrance for themselves.
It felt so good to be standing on firm ground. There's a big wooden house on the right as we came up..... some children playing, 2 men sitting on a wooden bench... some women doing some work, some dogs lying lazily and little piglet running around.... Everyone turned their head and paused for a moment to stare at us. No smile! No greetings! They knew Fernando and Edgar, don't they? But there was no warm reception. (Later Carol and me were told a ridiculous story about how a priest came and because of no warm reception, he refused to conduct Mass. I was irritated upon hearing that.)
We greeted everybody with a brief handshake, went to the next house, which has a sheltered corridor and just needed a rest. 3 peasants approached us and we could smell the alcohol from them, er ... it's only 5+ pm and these men were already half drunk. Carol was even more amazed that one guy could lean against a half-fence and stood sleeping zzzZZZZ !
These 3 men began insisting that we drink aguardiente, sort of a welcome drink :) To get away from these pestering, Carol and me went to the central washing point to clean ourselves. Water is tapped from the nearby stream into a concrete tank with 2 taps on each side of the tank. Next to the washing point, there's a wooden building with a toilet surprisingly with seat (but the flushing system never work, as the pipe was not connected to the water supply, so just imagined the condition yourself), muddy! And next to it, is a shower room. However, it seems that the peasants prefer to shower in the open next to the tank with the hose, in the cold dark night with no hot water.
Carol and me each carried a bottle of Chile Red wine though it added a little weight, it's definitely a luxury now to enjoy the wine as we could not find a pub here :) Partly, we wanted to avoid the aguardiente, though out of politeness, we merely went through lip services with the alcohol bottle. It's being passed around, sort of communal drink.
After a simple meal, 4 of us settled early for the night. There's only 1 bed and we let Edgar had the bed. Fernando brought his sleeping bag, Carol left her sleeping bag in the jeep and I didn't have one at all. So both Carol and me had to lay the dusty blanket on the dusty wooden floor. I have a fear for the mud but Carol has an allergy with dust and honestly, she has no idea at all that this is what we will be going through. I have no chance to brief her about the trip. However, there's no regret for her at all.
I didn't expect the Oriente region could be cold in the night so I didn't bring my jacket or sweater. Everyone, including the guidebook mentioned that it's hot but that's comparing to Cuenca and Quito. Carol had her sweater so she was kind enough to let me have the last blanket, which was barely sufficient to keep me warm. Poor Carol, she too was feeling cold even with her sweater. One of the peasants, Luis wanted us to drink with him insistently and when we turned him down, he kept mumbling outside our room disturbing our sleep. Finally, we felt asleep but woke up often due to the itch left by insects' bite.
As early as 8 am, these 3 peasants already dancing to the drunken steps. Can't believe that these guys preferred to indulge in useless activity the whole day. Maybe they are drinking to drown their sorrow and pessimism. And they talked about going overseas to work as they thought it's easy money. Many young men have left the village for city or overseas. The ones left behind are old and young children, women and these drunkards. Both our friends lamented the fact that they have spent time grooming young leaders but they left to work overseas. When your stomach is hungry, no amount of ideology works for most people.
That's the lesson learnt by our Ecuadorian friends. In the past, they focused too much on ideology but since 2 years ago, they began to include economic activity such as livestock and agriculture farming. And they are also focusing on educating the children, for children are the hope of the future. We were being briefed about the background of their work here in the Oriente region.... while we chewed sugarcane at a small plantation.
I have my respect for this group of Ecuadorian who sacrificed much, helping their fellow people. Their personal savings have been depleted and some of their friends have left because, honestly it is not easy to sustain stamina in genuine volunteering work. Many will be burnt out especially in a country such as Ecuador where crisis and ineffective government seem no sight of ending. I empathised with social volunteer workers, having volunteered myself in social work for 12 years in Singapore.
The Amazon/Oriente region has abundant oil reserves and it attracted foreign ventures' exploration throughout this region. They have promised to improve the living condition to these campesinos - building roads, schools, sanitation system..... however, the peasants and these community workers are seeing these foreign companies gaining but without any real benefits to the local. They have been dealing with the lawyer of foreign ventures for the last few years but in vain. And now they do not want any further exploration to their motherland as it posed a threat to their environment. So much global advertisement about how they care for the environment and striving to improve lives in the local community. Well, profit is the key word. With ineffective legislation and worse, government who do not bother to improve the livelihood of commoners, the campesinos are left to fend for themselves. However, this requires political participation, as the government is the one who grants contract to foreign companies.
Dong, dong, dong .... the village church bell reminding everyone the 8pm meeting. At 8.30pm and yet no one came to the meeting point. I was getting impatience wondering why these campesinos do not even show the slightest respect for the 2 Ecuadorian who came all the way in the mud to help them. We felt the disappointment and maybe they were used to it. But I was frustrated with the attitude of the campesinos. Another 10 minutes passed and I felt the need to act so I went around reminding them there's a meeting waiting for them and please...... show some respect to their fellow Ecuadorian who came all the way. Carol gestured with approval.
45 minutes later, we were being introduced to the campesinos and had a dialogue session with them. They were curious about many aspects of both countries - Canada and Singapore - more so about mine as they have never heard about Singapore and were amazed at how small my country is and not much agriculture activity. How did we survive? Where do we get our food? What type of economy activity? They even asked us how do we get marry - in the church or civil? We knew why they asked the last question - a priest chided them being worse than dog because they did not go through a church wedding. I prompted Carol to explain that everyone has different belief and it does not mean that you are worse than dog if no church wedding takes place. It's in your heart! Can you imagine that as we are approaching the 21st Century, there are religious priests who act as though they are still in medieval ages. I am not anti-religion but I do know that religion have not been very encouraging in motivating Latinos to help themselves rather it make them passive.
Fernando requested that I speak in Mandarin to the campesinos. And I spoke! With simultaneous translation to English and Fernando interpreted in Spanish. Among the words I said - I am not sure how much I can help and I do not want to make any promises but I will discuss with my friends. And I hope they help themselves to improve their lives, for their sake and for their children. Only when you want to help yourself, then you will make changes.
Next day, we were ready to leave before 9am. No emotional parting; no other words uttered other than "Hasta Luego!" Besides the drunkard, no one wants to be photographed. As we got off the 15m path and started walking up the steep slope, I saw a patch of blue sky amidst the cloudy sky. The rain has stopped since yesterday. Looking at the blue sky, I told myself that there's hope and there must be hope.
The next 2 hours was a torturous uphill climb. I was more confident to take on the mud and knowing where to step and move a little quicker. But we had another problem, as we did not have enough drinking water and our snacks were finished on day one. It's easier to walk without the rain but the sun made you thirsty. After one big stuck, I almost ran out of energy to carry on that I had to ask Edgar to seek some food from an isolated farm. He came back with sugarcane and that gave me some energy to carry on for the next 4 hours. In less than 3 days, 2 tedious trek, Carol and me felt the strain on our body. As I was walking, I decided that I not only want to write this story but I want to create a webpage with photos. I hope to create more awareness among the Ecuadorian and hopefully, to rally more of them to step forward to help themselves.
Finally, solid ground in Pananza. I was emotional and gave Carol a big hug. These will always be a special time spent with her and any mud I see in future shall be fondly associated with her. I needed alot of sugar so I gushed down 3 sodas and just lied down thinking of nothing but mud.
Road has never been so sturdy; water has never been so sweet; food has never been so delicious and shower has never been so refreshing (3 days with no bath when we returned to Indanza). Well, we had another problem - no petrol! Edgar stayed back in Pananza as he has some work with the animals the next day. The jeep has a flat tyre. After replacing with the spare tyre, Fernando decided to try and go back to Cuenca. 10 minutes before Indanza, the carburettor was choked with dirt as the jeep was running on reserve. While cleaning the carburettor, we saw a beautiful full moon rising up from behind the distance mountain next to the Indanza. The day was unbelievably beautiful and clear sky. Experiencing the full moon rise made us forget our fatigue. Life has its beautiful moment, after all!
We managed to struggle to Indanza but could not get any petrol and that's when we knew there's a strike by the petrol workers nationwide. We had to spend another night in Indanza while Fernando called his family in Cuenca and Gualaquiza to see if they could send petrol over. Next morning, we left early to Plan de Milagro, 25 minutes away, where there is a petrol station and a military passport checkpoint. Any foreigner entering and leaving Oriente, has to register with the checkpoint. Fernando's father knew someone at the station and they promised us 6 gallon. Hooray! And we got the tyre repaired too! Now we could get back to Cuenca which was another 5 hours drive.
Unfortunately, Murphy's Law at work! Anything that can go wrong; will go wrong! The 6-gallon petrol was mixed with water and dirt. Shit! So every 15-25 minutes drive, the jeep just stalled and Fernando had to clean the carburettor. Carol was really worried as we were in the middle of nowhere. One more stall near to the 4000m pÓramo, but we were lucky to get 2 gallon of clean petrol from an isolated family.
"Civilisation!" Fernando said as we saw Gualaceo from the top of the mountain pass. Gualaceo is a bigger town with Sunday market and only 40 minutes drive to Cuenca. It's Sunday, by the way! We felt exuberant coming back to Cuenca. We cleaned ourselves, had plenty of clean drinking water, better variety of food, proper accommodation and better road. I indulged myself in the next few days, cooking Singapore Chicken rice and other dishes, making Singapore style chilli. But I have to admit that the experience in the Oriente region have left a deep mark in me, more so than any other countries that I have been.
I have meeting with Fernando and Lina. Lina has been to the Oriente region too. She is actively involved with the women of Oriente. Both of them are professionals and could just stayed away from the muddy matter. But they could not and would not. And Ecuador needs more people to step forward and make a difference in their life. Mass exodus of Ecuadorian, leaving for greener pasture elsewhere has created a big social problem. Already 3 millions are in overseas and last month alone, more than 200,000 left and that's only the official figure.
Major challenges in the Oriente region: land ownership, proper road, clean water supply, sanitation, basic healthcare, basic education and diversified economic activities to generate enough work that could raise the standard of living. Many youngsters flocked to big cities of Ecuador and when they could not find work, turn to begging and worse, crime!
For more than 10 years, Fernando and his group of friends (now about 10) have been active in 14 villages accessible only by foot and 4 other bigger town in the Oriente region. They lobby the municipal government to provide some basic infrastructure such as electricity, educate the campesinos on livestock and agriculture techniques and management, and conduct educational, cultural and craft courses. They need more resources, knowledge transfer and more people, particularly more involvement of their fellow Ecuadorian.
Many Ecuadorian are feeling indifferent to their problems. They are stuck in their own mud and could not move rapidly enough over the mud. It's important to get out of the mud quickly, look ahead where the other people are walking but it's also important to help each other to get out of the mud.
I have since created a mini photo exhibition of the Oriente experience with English and Spanish text in Masdevalias Hostel. So far, there have been interests especially among the foreigners staying in the hostel. Some have even asked how could they get involved. I am encouraged!
I have also spoken to quite a number of Ecuadorian whenever an opportunity present, and inviting them to view the exhibit. They may know the problem but extending their hand is another matter. I am realistic as I told Fernando, the problem in Ecuador would take at least one generation to improve. Of course, with the right participation, right direction and right leadership.
A website is on the way. Thanks to Andy Choy. Another story to appeal for resources is also on the way. I want to express my appreciation to Juan, owner of Gran Via Internet cafe who loan me his laptop computer so I need not spend too much time and money in the cafe, and I could complete several writings in Masdevalias. I hope there will be more Samaritan coming forward as this is only a small beginning.
Will I go back to the mud again? I am sure I will but next time, with something better to offer to the campesinos.
Tay, The Life Explorer!