Baltazar en Nueva York, Part 2

From the get-go, nothing happened as I had expected. It is hard to estimate how someone from an indigenous rural town in Ecuador will react when arriving in New York, the most densely populated metropolitan area in the United States. Certainly, it’s been done before; the New York area has the highest Ecuadorian population outside of Ecuador. However, it is usually the young people who emigrate from Ecuador, not their parents or grandparents. Well, my concern began as soon as I saw Rodrigo, Baltazar and Carmen through the doors of the airport.

The first issue was Carmen’s cough. It was a hard cough that resounded deep from her lungs. She looked worried and so did Baltazar. They stayed close, clinging to one another’s clothes. Rodrigo leaned over to me and said, “We have a little bit of a problem.” All my hopes for the trip—of bringing Baltazar to New York for the premiere of The Last Ice Merchant, of a grand cultural exchange, of sharing new experiences and foods—flashed before my eyes and then dissolved into one immediate concern: What if this was a terrible idea? Questions of doubt raced through my mind. Who was I to interrupt people’s lives and take them out of their familiar zones—their homes and communities—and bring them to a place they’d never been and where they don’t speak the language? They have hard lives to begin with, why do they need this extra stress? Why did I think they would like New York in the first place? What if something happens to them because of me? How could I tell their families?

We did the only thing we could do at that point: move forward. We collected the luggage and I drove them to the apartment I had rented for them in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It must have been a strange experience for Baltazar and Carmen as we entered their apartment. It was a railroad style unit on the third floor of a brownstone. It seemed as if they didn’t even know what to do with themselves. We encouraged them to relax and sit on the couch. They poked at the couch and then awkwardly sat, looking around to see what would happen next and what was expected of them. It was immediately apparent that everything would require cultural translation. Not only do Baltazar and Carmen not have couches in their homes in Ecuador, but their day-to-day lives don’t include time to relax and lounge around on couches. Sitting in one place and doing nothing seemed not only unfamiliar but stressful to them. On top of that, Carmen was still coughing and Baltazar continued to look worried about it. We retrieved Carmen’s knitting supplies from the luggage to help keep her hands busy and take her mind off of things. Rodrigo and I talked and decided that the best thing to do would be to regroup after a night of sleep and see how things looked in the morning.

The next morning I was awoken at 5:30 by the phone call. It was Rodrigo. He told me that they hadn’t slept all night and that we should go to the hospital. Carmen’s cough had persisted and her heart felt like it was burning. Apparently, she had lost her appetite and hadn’t eaten in weeks, subsisting only on water. Without brushing my teeth, changing my clothes or eating a bite, I jumped into my car and headed to Crown Heights.

There are many factors in Carmen’s lifestyle that could contribute to her sickness. First, nutrition isn’t a consideration where she lives. The diet consists of what is available and cheap; potatoes and white rice make up a large portion of every meal. Second, the tradition is to cook inside over an open fire. Homes fill up with thick smoke within minutes of cooking, making it hard to breath. Consequently, lung problems are very common in the area. Each home is generally one room, so the kitchen is also the bedroom. So if a dinner fills the home with smoke, then everyone must continue to breath it throughout the night. On top of that, Carmen rarely has time to rest between working in the field, tending to animals and taking care of her family.

Rodrigo, Baltazar and Carmen were sitting on the stoop of the brownstone waiting for me. I took them to the emergency room of a nearby hospital where she was admitted. Doctors immediately started performing tests. As the tests progressed—blood work, urine work, EKG, x-rays, multiple doctors—it dawned on me that we had yet another obstacle ahead of us: the bill. The work was easily adding up to thousands of dollars.

Carmen and Baltazar in the hospital.

Carmen and Baltazar in the hospital.

Once all the tests were complete, the doctors reached a diagnosis. The good news was that Carmen’s heart appeared healthy and her lungs also appeared in good condition. She did have some darker areas on the top of her lungs that were likely caused by breathing so much fire smoke. In the end, the doctors diagnosed her with constipation and heart burn that were most likely aggravated by stress (which, when combined, could very well make you feel as if you were having a heart attack). The news lightened the mood of the day. We were then faced with the concern of the bill.

When we had arrived at the ER, I had to show my ID to check Carmen in. I was in the system. But with a little searching, I found someone and, with a brief explanation of the situation, this person pulled me aside and said that if they help, I couldn’t tell anybody who did it. Within minutes, my address and phone number were changed in the digital records and we walked out of the hospital. Our secret ally had left us with these words: “Let Obama pay for it.”

In the end, the opportunity to go to a hospital was a blessing in disguise. Carmen had been to a hospital in Riobamba, Ecuador previously because of heart pain. There they had concluded that she had a heart problem and that, in the not too distant future, she would need an operation. Everything that the New York doctors told us refuted that claim. We have papers now showing the state of her health and we have guidelines for how to help.

Within a couple days of following the doctors’ orders, Carmen was feeling better, more energetic and hungry at last. It may have been a rocky start to the trip, but I genuinely believe that going through this was one of the best things that could happen for Carmen in the long run. Plus, I was able to swipe a few extra pairs of the non-slip hospital socks that Baltazar had admired, which will surely help keep his feet warm on Chimborazo.

Sandy Posted by Sandy. 2,003 Comments

Baltazar en Nueva York, Part 1

Much has happened since the last post. I returned from Ecuador and settled in New York City. I am once again working full-time in post production – spending days and nights in a dark room tinkering away on films and tv shows that have yet to be seen. I commute on the subway with hundreds of thousands of other people every day. But Ecuador has not been forgotten – nor have the many great people that I met there. The projects that we started last year have been my personal escape back to South America. Videos and photographs, writings and scarves, memories of where the holes in my clothes were formed. The goal of our projects has always been about sharing experiences. Now, with the completion of our first project, a short documentary titled El Último Hielero (The Last Ice Merchant), we start what I hope is the beginning of a series of cultural exchanges.

El Último Hielero tells the story of Baltazar Ushca, the last ice merchant of Ecuador. Twice a week for over half a century, Baltazar has hiked up the slopes of Mount Chimborazo with his mules to harvest the natural glacial ice that covers the highest altitudes of the mountain. In the past, up to forty ice merchants made the journey weekly; today, however, Baltazar works alone. The goal of the documentary was to share a story of cultural change and indigenous lifestyle with people that would never otherwise have been introduced to it. It was important to me to portray the characters as the dignified people that they are and to show the very human story of their circumstances.

Well, the documentary is finished and El Último Hielero just completed its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It wouldn’t have felt right to attend the festival alone while so many great people helped to make the film possible. In exploring ways to expand the cultural exchange of just watching the movie, it was immediately evident that Baltazar should come to New York to participate in the festival. It is all too simple to watch a movie and forget that the people in it are real, but Baltazar, standing in front of the film festival audience, could bring Ecuador to the theater! And for Baltazar, who has never been outside of Ecuador before, it would be a chance for a cultural exchange in the opposite direction as well as a symbol of my appreciation for all that he has done for me, the movie, and his community. And so, four days before our first screening, Baltazar, his daughter Carmen and our good friend Rodrigo Donoso boarded a flight in Quito headed to New York City.

I will be posting pictures of our time together in New York over the next week. I think we all walked away from this having learned a great deal and I’m looking forward to sitting down and writing it all out. Until then…

Baltazar, Carmen and Rodrigo arrive in New York.

Baltazar, Carmen and Rodrigo arrive in New York.

Sandy Posted by Sandy. 1,972 Comments

Return to Ecuador

The past few months have been very busy since I left Ecuador. We have been working hard on the documentary, El Último Hielero (The Last Ice Merchant), and continuing to prepare our book, Train of Dreams: The Passage of Time. I’m delighted to say that, after months of silence, I have returned to Ecuador to continue work on our projects and keep things moving. This time I am here to focus on the book. And, of course, I have reunited with Rodrigo to see what kinds of trouble we can get into.

Once I arrived, we immediately headed down to the coast to collect interviews from railroad workers and descendents of railroad workers, as well as to scout locations for photography. We didn’t realize how quickly we would meet so many interesting people. In fact, we barely had to do any more than walk into Duran, the coastal town where the railway starts, to start uncovering stories.

For now I will focus on only one person, Sr. Davis. Sr. Davis is an engineer in Duran. Though he does not work for the train company, his father did, also as an engineer. His father, like many other railroad workers, felt passionately about Ecuador’s trains. The trains were such a focus in his life, in fact, that he devoted much of his personal time rebuilding miniature working versions of them in his garage. Hand-crafted and fully functioning, these trains are strong enough to carry adults across the miniature, hand-crafted tracks.

Sr. Davis watches over his father's trains in Duran, Ecuador.

Sr. Davis watches over his father's trains in Duran, Ecuador.

Today, Sr. Davis looks after the trains his father built by hand and brings them out of the garage on holidays. He is also always happy to give a tour of the garage and to share a personal demonstration to any passersby. The following is a video of the demonstration he gave us, with Rodrigo happily jumping on top of the train for a ride.

Sandy Posted by Sandy. 2,651 Comments

Walking the Tracks

This morning, bright and early, Rodrigo and I begin our latest adventure: walking the entire line of the old narrow-gauge Guayaquil & Quito (G&Q) Railway, a 466 km (290 mile) hike. The trek, from the lowlands of Guayaquil, the coastal port and largest city in Ecuador, to Quito, the capital city high in the Andes, will bring us from sea-level to over 3,600 meters (11,800 feet) in altitude at its highest point.

The route and altitudes of the Guayaquil & Quito Railway.

The route and altitudes of the Guayaquil & Quito Railway.

Why are we doing this, you might ask? Why would anyone spend three weeks climbing from the sea level to the sky via old railroad tracks?

A. Because it’s there.
B. To bring attention to the rehabilitation of the railroad.
C. To raise awareness of the railroad’s history, so that it will not be lost.
D. And, of course, we both like adventure and being outdoors!

Our hope is that an American and an Ecuadorian walking together will celebrate the partnership, commitment and sacrifices that people from two different countries on different continents – North America and South America – made over one hundred years ago when they came together to complete what has been called “the most difficult railroad in the world.”

Before the G&Q Railway was built, it took up to 30 days to travel from Guayaquil to Quito – and it could only be done six months out of the year because of rains and flooding. Travelers generally started out by steamboat from the swamps of Guayaquil, steaming up an alligator-infested river, then continued on by horse or mule or Indian back picking along sheer cliff paths up into the mountains, and then finally by coach over the highlands to Quito. Everything and everyone traveling between Guayaquil and Quito took these routes. If someone in Quito wanted a piano? Up it went on the backs of Indians. Furniture? Food? Liquor? Coffee? Cacao? Same thing.

The railway effectively shortened the length of the trip to two days, with trains usually stopping in Riobamba for the night.

When we depart from Guayaquil this morning, we plan on about 15 days of hiking to reach Chimbacalle Station in Quito. During that time, we’ll be walking by foot and following the tracks. We’ll be meeting lots of local folks, and learning about the places and people as we pass. Check the blog often to see where we are and to read about the history of the railroad and the towns along the old G&Q Railway route.

Sandy Posted by Sandy. 2,005 Comments

Be a Part of El Último Hielero!

We are really excited about the progress of our short documentary, El Último Hielero. Production continues to progress and the footage is looking great. But the next step is quickly approaching: Post Production.

Shooting specialized shots at the base of Chimborazo.

Shooting specialized shots at the base of Chimborazo.

Baltazar making ropes through the monitor.

Baltazar making ropes through the monitor.

Soon I will return to New York City where the movie will have to be edited, scored, conformed, colored and mixed. Then we have to start submitting to film festivals.

I have started a Kickstarter project in order to help raise funds to complete the film. Kickstarter is a fundraising website for independent projects that allows anyone to contribute. In exchange for support, rewards are granted on a tiered basis. It’s a great idea and I’m hoping through this we can find a way to finish this movie and make it the best that it can be!

Kickstarter Logo

Please consider contributing to this documentary through our Kickstarter. Every dollar helps (and that just happens to be the minimum contribution!).

Sandy Posted by Sandy. 1,393 Comments