Friday, March 02, 2007

Ecuador´s Central Highlands: Chocolate, Cheese, and Sheepshit

Leaving behind the bustling town of Riobamba, the bus wound up and above 10,000 feet, the view of the hulking Volcán Chimborazo swinging from the right to the left of the dusty bus. The dirt road twisted up and out of valleys, through hills both rugged and lush. Patchwork farms stitched onto the precipitously steep slopes. (It´s hard to believe the soil wouldnt just wash away, let alone people could actually tend thes plots.) Then higher into the clouds, the only views of shacks perched precariously on hilltops, colorful clothes flapping in the mist. Then down again, finally revealing the pueblo of Salinas.

Salinas is a beautiful mountain town, renowned for its salt mines and artesanal flavor. The gusty winds and rolling clouds give the town a magical quality. Amazingly, there are 22 micro-empresas (small businesses/factories), which make this one road town very unique and surprisingly progressive: a model for sustainable, post-agricultural development and stemming the exodus of young adults to cities that threatens many ecuadorian villages. Our first stop was the Quesaria - cheese factory. We wandered into the two-inch deep water and curdled milk bits covering the floor, the 4 workers barely acknowledging us. They were in the zone in their white and green uniforms and knee-high white rubber boots, focused on mixing curds and pouring them into round, cheese shaped strainers. The scene looked somewhat chaotic with the sloshing buckets of curds being stirred, dumped, drained, and pressed. Following the strong smell of raw cultures fermenting in the air, we went into the adjacent room which was full of shelves of hundreds of round cheeses. Then we went into the following room after room of different sized cheeses in varying stages of maturation. Our stomachs grumbled and it was time to hit the store where we sampled cheeses and bought our delectable Tlinit cheese and a large bottle of fresh yogurt.

Then onto the chocolateria (which was disappointingly much less interactive than the cheese factory) where we peered through the glass window to see the chocolate being created. Stocking up on this important commodity for our trip, we invested in some really good quality chocolate amargo : bitter chocolate. Then onward...

The dried mushroom factory gave off that woody, earthy, ancient smell, but wasn´t much to explore.

In the soccer ball factory there was one man working. He was surrounded by octagonal stencil shapes, red & black ink, rubber, and of course soccer balls hanging all over the ceiling. He handed Paul a ball to try out and bounce around, and we noticed the ¨Made in China¨ stamp on the side.

We then walked into the Hilanderia, not sure what we´d find by the name. Upon first entering the dark and wet factory we were overwhelmed by the strong gamey odor of wet beast. As our eyes adjusted we could see raw wool being cleaned in a huge vat of grey chunky water. It appeared to be an open wool washing machine being churned and scooped by the man behind it. We walked further into the chambers where there was wool hanging from the ceiling, stuck to the light bulbs and the chain link walls. Deeper, where there was drying wool spinning and pieces floating in the air. As we slowly walked further, the sheepy smell faded and we saw bundles of soft wool piled high on the ground. Then onto the weaving room. And finally we entered the clean, crisp, and colorful room of huge bundles of yarn. Vwallah! If only the sheep knew what their warm fur would become...

We passed by the sausage factory, which we declined to enter to the disappointment of the young girl whacking chunks of meat with a machete and the little ladies (with particles of meat parts all over their clothes). But we did later buy and fry up some of the tasty salchichas.

And then onto the fabrica de aceites escenciales (essential oil factory). The delicious woody smell captivating us as we entered into the distillation room. A young guy with a bright smile was manning the distillers and he explained the oil extraction process to us. Pine, eucalyptus, cypress, and mint are all collected locally and were being distilled that afternoon in giant distillers, which are also made locally. The oils were primary distillation and amazing quality. They also make salves, shampoos, massage oils, and herbal honey blends. We left there feeling high and happy.
Tuesday is market day in Salinas. The central square is filled with squat indigenous women in bright, layered skirts and shalls selling bananas, leeks, corn... the ubiquitous 3 on 3 volleyball game occupies the rest of the plaza while ont he periphery men wheel carts of knick-knacks for sale. Just behind this scene, a crowd was forming. Waiting for the bus to Simiatug, I bellied up to the circle with the rest. At 5´9¨ I could peer over the crowd, realizing this was a cock fight. Actually, it was the pre-fight ritual. Men and boys in dusty blazers over wholey sweaters gathered around the guys clutching their roosters under arm. Everyone voiced their opinion about the best match-ups while the cock-owners stroked their birds with oil, and smirking men sharpened implements which could be attached to the talons. After much discussion, 2 pollos colorados were brought to the scale. Excited cheers announced their matching weights: 3 pounds, 1 oz. Everyone quickly pushed up to the circle, their rubber boots toeing the wooden barrier. The two owners whispered words of prayer or attack to their cocks then held them up to eachother. Clucking and struggling and sufficiently wired on avian testosterone, they were carried into the ring. The crowd shouted bets which were fielded by a greasy, bloated man who tore off mouthfulls of pork skin from his handfull of the delicacy which is eaten raw and salted, short pig hairs still visible. Just as the action was about to commence, a horn sounded and the bus rounded the hill. I found Tamara and, with a regret laced with relief, boarded the weekly bus to Simiatúg.
Standing room only on the tortuosly twisted and rutted road to Simiatúg. The locals wrapped themselves in shawls and blankets, sealing the windows, while Tamara and I swooned in the stagnant, high-altitude air. Finally, descending into one of the many valleys the horrible road had followed, we glimpsed Simiatug sitting on a rare shelf of land. We found the only hostel in town, run by and warmly decorated by the women´s collective, then strolled the town. The locals were drawn to us with a mix of extreme friendliness and fascination. Little boys scurried behind us, giggling ecstatically. Teenage girls approached wide-eyed to touch tamara´s arm, smiling in passing. An old woman with an ancient face both calm and wrinkled in lifetoil took tamara´s hand, gazing up at her and making sure we knew where we were going. Entire giant pigs hung from hooks, thier hair singed off, leaving the skin an artificial yellow and accentuating the facial wrinkles. They hung all over town like surrealistic porcine mannequins.
In the morning, everyone prepared for the weekly market. Folks from 45 indigenous communities flooded into town. The school yard became donkey-parking. Trucks overflowed with families hanging on, riding on top of goats, sheep, llamas. Bigger trucks hauled in bulls and fine horses. On the network of footpaths descending from the hills, small red and blue dots made their way into Simiatug. The market spread throughout town. Fruits, vegetables, clothes, rubber boots, ropes, wire, a variety of things made from old tires, dried goods, prepared food, buckets of animal flesh and organs, shimmering, fragrant piles of fish (at 12000 feet!) and of course the animal market. Sheeps and goats lay passively in the dirt, their legs tied together. Massive, grotesque sows complained as their babies relentlessly suckled. A mule for 50$. An intelligent looking llama for 30. A beautiful horse for 300. A lame donkey for 20. Prospective customers poked and prodded the product, bartering over the price in poor spanish.
But the seasonal wind had picked up, so we boarded the bus to Ambato - the big city on the Pan-American Highway. We got seats, and I climbed to the roof to secure our bags, finding space among the potatos and 4 sheep. After a swirling journey, we arrived nauseously at the pavement and soon into town. The boy lowered the animals down by the ropes around their necks, and I retrieved our backpacks, only slightly shit-upon.


At 12:07 AM, Blogger kenny said...

I am AMAZED by your adventures !

At 1:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

please send home
essential oils
some people
some mountains
some food
and the vibes
a goathair frisbee
no worries though
Love YOU! xxoobroehe

At 3:38 PM, Blogger paulandcarol said...

We miss you both so much. Your wonderful stories make us feel closer. Paul, we loved talking with you yesterday but regret that the Skypephantom cut us off.
Keep in touch. M and D

At 9:46 AM, Anonymous Marjorie said...

Good words.


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