El Último Hielero: Week 1

We just finished shooting the first week of what will be the short documentary, El Último Hielero (The Last Ice Merchant). For a preview of what the ice merchant does, see this post. Rodrigo and I pitched tents in Cuatro Esquinas, the small, rural town where Baltazar, the ice merchant, lives so that we can live close to the families and be around all day to shoot, without wasting time traveling to and fro.

We started the shoot with Baltazar’s brother, Gregorio, who is an ex-ice merchant. Gregorio used to haul the huge blocks of ice down from the glacier on Chimborazo on the backs of mules and make his own ice cream from basic ingredients like fruit and sugar, but he stopped when sales for traditional glacial ice cream declined and supplies grew too expensive. Now he sells factory-made ice cream. However, Gregorio agreed to show us how he used to make the ice cream. We followed Gregorio for two days as he travelled to Riobamba to buy ingredients and demonstrate the making of ice cream from blocks of ice.

Shooting on a Condor bus en route to Riobamba.

Shooting on a Condor bus en route to Riobamba.

Video Still: On a bus to Riobamba.

Video Still: On a bus to Riobamba.

The first day’s shoot following Gregorio began on the Condor Bus, the main mode of transportation from Cuatro Esquinas to Riobamba. Music blasts from the speakers, and different buses are decorated with different color schemes; the décor of the Condor Bus included swanky red upholstery and curtains that could come straight from a bordello.

The ice factory in Riobamba.

The ice factory in Riobamba.

Gregorio often buys blocks of ice from the ice factory, where the large blocks are frozen underneath the floorboards. The ice factory owner gave us a tour, along with a basic rundown of how the ice is made.

The produce market in Riobamba.

The produce market in Riobamba.

We then headed to the produce market where Gregorio buys blackberries to flavor the ice cream. The market is expansive with mounds of fruits and vegetables of all different shapes and colors and sizes.

Video Still: An ice cream shop in Riobamba.

Video Still: An ice cream shop in Riobamba.

Video Still: Gregorio buys ice cream cones.

Video Still: Gregorio buys ice cream cones.

And then to an ice cream shop to pick up 300 cones.

Video Still: Gregorio prepares the ice cream base.

Video Still: Gregorio prepares the ice cream base.


This is Gregorio’s old workshop. Here he processes his ingredients to make the blackberry base for the ice cream.

Gregorio cleans the ice from the factory.

Gregorio cleans the ice from the factory.

Video Still: Gregorio churns ice cream in a wooden barrel.

Video Still: Gregorio churns ice cream in a wooden barrel.

Video Still: Ice cream starts to form.

Video Still: Ice cream starts to form.

Outside, Gregorio prepares the ice, cleaning and crushing it. He then loads the crushed ice into a large wooden barrel in which a metal tube is placed with the ice cream base. By spinning the metal tube and stirring the mixture occasionally with a large metal spoon, the fruity red liquid slowly begins to freeze. Eventually the magic and delectable product emerges: blackberry ice cream!

Video Still: Gregorio and his delivery bicycle.

Video Still: Gregorio and his delivery bicycle.

Video Still: Gregorio sells his ice cream in town for 15 cents.

Video Still: Gregorio sells his ice cream in town for 15 cents.

Video Still: A man buys ice cream from Gregorio.

Video Still: A man buys ice cream from Gregorio.

Gregoria then loads the entire wooden barrel of ice and ice cream on his bicycle, and peddles about town, selling ice cream one cone at a time. He honks the horn on his bike to get the attention of passers-by.

Transferring footage at night.

Transferring footage at night.

Every night, in Cuatro Esquinas, I transfer the day’s film footage from camera to computer. Having scoured the area for adequate cables, Rodrigo was able to splice electricity to an outlet in Gregorio’s old workshop. This is where we finish every night, transferring footage by candlelight.

Sandy Posted by Sandy. 6 Comments

Cotopaxi: On Top of the World

Since I first came to Ecuador in 2008, certain images have remained in my mind; llamas in the sunset, vibrant red quinoa fields, the giant cotton-ball clouds of the highlands. The most memorable of these images, however, were the mountains. Snow-capped monsters jutting out of the earth, these jagged mounds of rock and ice marked a landscape unlike any other I had ever seen before. The most majestic of these was Cotopaxi.

The first time I saw Cotopaxi in 2008.

The first time I saw Cotopaxi in 2008.

At 5,897 meters (19,347 feet), Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano in Ecuador and the second highest peak (second only to Chimborazo). Its almost perfect cone shape is home to one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world, surrounded by miles of fields laden with volcanic rocks. Cotopaxi has been worshipped by indigenous people for millennia, heavily featured in local art, and sent to homes around the world on postcards. In 1921, the Australian poet W.J. Turner tried to capture the emotions he felt when he first encountered the mountains in his poem Romance (full poem here):

The houses, people, traffic seemed
Thin fading dreams by day;
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi,
They had stolen my soul away!

When I first saw Cotopaxi, the thought of climbing the mountain didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t consider it until I was looking through a book at Rodrigo’s house last September. Flipping through the pictures late one night, I stumbled upon an illustration drawn by the Spanish scientists Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa in the mid-1700s. They were sent to South America as part of a French study to determine if the Earth was perfectly rounded at the poles or, as Newton had suggested, flattened (long story short, and by a close call, the poles are slightly flattened). On their way, they observed numerous unique geographic and atmospheric phenomena. This illustration shows the eruption of Cotopaxi with a fogbow shining in the background, published in their final work Voyage Historique De L’Amérique Méridionale. And, for some reason, when I saw this picture I knew that I wanted to stand at the top of this volcano and see the world from a new altitude.

Illustration of Cotopaxi published in Voyage Historique De L'Amérique Méridionale.

Illustration of Cotopaxi published in Voyage Historique De L'Amérique Méridionale.

The adventure commenced at the Cotopaxi Cara Sur Refugio, a climbing shelter at 4,000 meters on the south side of the volcano. Rodrigo had assembled a team to gather there before heading out. The plan was to meet in the afternoon, hike three hours to the camp at 4,800 meters, and then sleep until midnight when we would start the grueling seven-hour climb to the top of the mountain. The goal is usually to hit the summit around sunrise. Unfortunately, however, just as we arrived at the shelter, a storm rolled in with a heavy downpour. Unphased by this setback, we decided we would just head out earlier in the night and combine the two phases into one long trek.

Before going to bed at around 7pm, we stacked on the layers of clothing that we would rely on for warmth once we hit the snow (and for the unheated shelter). I wore four layers on bottom and four layers on top, as well as two pairs of socks. At 10pm we arose to finish assembling our gear and to venture into the darkness of the night.

Let me start off by stating that this was, without a doubt, the most difficult physical endeavor that I have ever attempted. We set off to climb 1,900 meters in altitude after three hours of sleep over a span of ten hours. Oh, and I had a full bag of camera equipment strapped to my back. And within an hour I knew it would be rough going.

We started on the fields surrounding the volcano, where the ground felt like sand under our heavy boots. True to the plan, it took us three hours to reach the camp, where we took a break and boiled some water to refill our bottles. As we gradually gained in altitude, any hole in the ground gradually filled with more ice. With each break, we could feel the ever-colder air blowing against our sweaty backs, giving us a gentle push to keep going.

Within one more hour we reached the snow. At this point, we had to stop and reassemble ourselves for the new terrain. Crampons (big metal spikes) were attached to our boots, we tied to each other in groups of three using harnesses, and ice picks were distributed. Breaking through the clean, fresh snow, the clouds started to clear to reveal, much to our pleasure, the supermoon of March 19 shining so bright that we didn’t need headlamps for the rest of the climb. It was serendipitous that on the night of the moon’s closest swing towards Earth, we were thousands of meters high just under the equator – one of the closest places to space on the planet.

After eight hours of climbing, the sun finally started to light the sky from the east. Cameras came out; we took a moment to view the world from the rarefied atmosphere above.

Taking a short break to catch a very needed breath.

Taking a short break to catch a very needed breath.

The air at that altitude was so thin that breaks had to be taken every few minutes. We moved forward with a 20 step system; every 20 steps, we would take a momentary break to catch our breath in our aching lungs. For me, each step felt like the last I could possibly take. And each following step did not feel like a force of strength, as I could no longer feel any strength in my legs, but a force of willpower, step by step by slow and measured step. I threw up twice along the way from exhaustion and altitude. But that didn’t stop us from proceeding.

Finding ourselves above the clouds at sunrise.

Finding ourselves above the clouds at sunrise.

Yet once the summit of the mountain came into view, determination grew again within us. Slowly but surely, 20 steps at a time, we made our way to the summit, where we entered another world.

We have entered another world.

We have entered another world.

Daniel and Rodrigo.

Daniel and Rodrigo.

This was a world of ice and rock; age old glacier on top of steaming volcanic rubble surrounded by a landscape covered not by ground, but by clouds. In the center of the peak was a large crater from the collapsed cone of the mountain, sitting silently for now, waiting for the day when it will once again decide to rumble into action with an explosion of molten earth and ash.

The final push to the top.

The final push to the top.

The crater steams silently.

The crater steams silently.

Reaching the top – exhausted, aching and dizzy – we looked out at the incredible and expansive view around and below us, and we each fell to the ground in relief, knowing that our ascent was complete: we were finally standing on top of the world.

The team at the summit.

The team at the summit.

Sandy Posted by Sandy. 4 Comments

The $10 Fruit Challenge

With a little extra time today, I had to come up with an activity that would feel productive yet enjoyable. Finding $10 in my pocket, I decided that this would be the key to the challenge. So I walked to the Mercado Central to buy as much fruit as I could within my set limit of funds. And what I ended up with was far more than I could have imagined.

A collection of fruits for under $10.

A collection of fruits for under $10.

Many of these fruits are often sitting in my apartment at any given time, but today presented an opportunity to spend some extra time with the familiar and to get acquainted with the new. I lined them up and, one by one, sliced and tasted each. Here is a rundown of the wide range of fruits that you can find in Ecuador.

A Note on Passion Fruit:
I actually found three different types of passion fruit today. You may not see the similarities from the outside, but once you look within, it’s pretty obvious. The fruit is characterized by its seeds covered by a slimy, jelly-like membrane (which is actually the delicious part). You can eat the seeds with the goo; no need to separate them. Interestingly, while some people think that it’s called passion fruit because of its aphrodisiac qualities, quite on the contrary; it was named by Christians as a reference to the passion of Jesus, with the ten petals of the flower representing the ten faithful apostles.

Granadilla
This is my favorite passion fruit. It is the sweetest of the three that I found. The seeds are also the most reminiscent of frog eggs (or snot, you choose) than the other passion fruits. It’s said that these are good for your stomach and can be eaten before a meal to aid in digestion.

Granadilla.

Granadilla.


Taxo
Also known as the banana passion fruit, the taxo is tangier than the sweet granadilla. The closer-packed seeds are also slightly harder than the other passion fruits.
Taxo, or Banana Passion Fruit

Taxo, or Banana Passion Fruit


Maracuyá
The most tart of the three passion fruits that I found, this was, consequently, my least favorite. This variety of passion fruit is often made into juice in Ecuador, but sugar is added to counter the sour flavor.
Maracuyá.

Maracuyá.


Pitahaya
Since arriving in Ecuador, I’ve probably eaten one of these daily. Also known as the yellow dragon fruit, it is closely related to the pink variety that you can find in Chinatowns across the US. The inside is semi-clear with seeds suspended throughout, similar to a kiwi. The flavor is sweet, but subtle with a slightly floral hint. Excellent when chilled.
Pitahaya, or Golden Dragon Fruit.

Pitahaya, or Golden Dragon Fruit.


Guayaba
Known as guava in the U.S., this interesting fruit isn’t particularly sweet; the smell and flavor are almost musky. It somewhat reminds me of a mix between a pear and a strawberry. The small seeds throughout can be eaten, and some people even eat the skin.
Guayaba, or Guava.

Guayaba, or Guava.


Pepino
Pepino is a nightshade related to the tomato and eggplant. The flavor is slightly sweet and resembles a honeydew melon. Because of this, it is sometimes referred to as a pepino melon, though it isn’t closely related to the melon family.
Pepino.

Pepino.


Fisalida
Also known as the cape gooseberry after being cultivated at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa (despite it being native to South America). This fruit is slightly sweet with a little tang and a hint of tomato. I think this would be a good addition to a salad. The paper-like outside is discarded and the orange fruit is eaten whole.
Fisalida, or Cape Gooseberry.

Fisalida, or Cape Gooseberry.


Achotillo
Also known as rambutan, this fruit can be found in Chinatowns in the US and even at some Whole Foods or freeze dried at Trader Joe’s. The fruit inside is similar to lychee, though it is harder to separate from the seed. It is sweet and slightly floral in flavor.
Achotillo, or Rambutan.

Achotillo, or Rambutan.


Sapote
Though it looks more like a squash inside, this fruit has a surprisingly fresh flavor, with hints of persimmon and cantaloupe.
Sapote.

Sapote.


Babaco
Leaving the largest for last, babaco is a very juice fruit that tastes somewhat like a watered down pineapple with a touch of strawberry. It is often boiled with cinnamon and sugar and served hot in its own syrup.
Babaco.

Babaco.

Sandy Posted by Sandy. 6 Comments

Three Days on the Inca Trail

Last week I accompanied one of Rodrigo’s tours on the Inca Trail. He was leading a group of three on a rigorous southbound hike to climb over 1,000 meters following the path of the chasquis, the Inca runners, 500 years ago. These chasquis carried messages across the Inca Empire, providing the sole form of long distance communication.

The trek started in the small indigenous town of Achupallas, where farms speckled the land without a trace of road leading to them. These were the last houses we saw as we headed to the more isolated valleys along which the trail runs.

Roosters in Achupallas.

Roosters in Achupallas.

The interesting thing about this section of the trail is the formation of the land. It is believed that the rounded valleys were left by glacial recession. The idea is that 10,000 years ago, anything above 3,200 meters was covered in glaciers. As the ice slowly melted, it left a characteristic U-shaped valley with steep walls, often with a stream running through the center. Another sign of glacial recession are the rocks embedded in the ground that almost look misplaced. It makes for a unique and beautiful landscape.

The glacial valley along which the Inca Trail runs.

The glacial valley along which the Inca Trail runs.

The first day was a short hike, as we set up next to the rushing stream in the valley. The evening quickly grew foggy, as clouds rushed in from the north, setting the ambiance for the night.

The stream rushes by camp.

The stream rushes by camp.

The stream will soon be covered in clouds.

The stream will soon be covered in clouds.

The lush green landscape against the red curtain of our improvised “facilities” even made the loo picturesque.

The bathroom.

The bathroom.

As night grew closer, Rodrigo and I decided to explore and climb the western side of the valley. At the top, we were able to catch the last light of sunset, as well as a view of the tops of Chimborazo and the volcanic Sangay. It was a slow trip back down, as night had fallen and all we could see was the short distance illuminated by our headlamps in front of us.

The last glimpse of sunset.

The last glimpse of sunset.

When we returned to camp, food was waiting to be served and a fire had just started to crackle.

A fire roars.

A fire roars.

We had tents prepared for sleeping, but another opportunity was calling. Along the steep sides of the valley, small caves lined the rock walls. Under the sounds of dripping water and the flapping of wings as birds sought shelter, I spent the night on a bed of hay nestled in the mouth of a small opening.

My view in the morning.

My view in the morning.

The next day started with clear skies and a warm sun. We decided to take the high road, along the ridge of the mountains. This provided excellent views in all directions, as well as a chance to get light-headed in the high altitude. The highest point of the day hit 4,450 meters, or about 14,600 feet.

View from the ridge.

View from the ridge.

The valleys are peppered with lakes.

The valleys are peppered with lakes.

At high altitudes, it’s like you’re in another world. The flora grows smaller and smaller the higher you get and grows in formations unlike anywhere else.

A typical view of the highlands.

A typical view of the highlands.

Instead of grass, this plant covers much of the ground.

Instead of grass, this plant covers much of the ground.

After five hours of hiking, our destination was finally in sight. With three more hours, we reached this lake in the valley, where Incan ruins awaited.

Our destination.

Our destination.

These ruins are believed to be a tambo, a station house for the chasquis as they tag-treamed across the trail like a relay race.

A donkey and a tambo.

A donkey and a tambo.

Fortunately, it was intact enough for another interesting camp spot. And, as I settled into my sleeping bag and the clouds cleared for the night, shooting stars streaked across the sky while the milky way twinkled from above.

Camping in the tambo.

Camping in the tambo.

The last day was a shorter hike across flat farmlands, where cows called to us and streams irrigated the pastures. These provided obstacles, but nothing to which we hadn’t grown accustomed.

Leaping over a stream.

Leaping over a stream.

We ended the day at Ingapirca, the largest known Incan ruins in Ecuador. This is also an interesting site because these temples and ritual site were actually built on top of an ancient Cañari site, the predecessors to the land. Here sit the temples to the moon and sun, as well as a burial ground and rooms that were believed to house virgins.

Temple of the Sun.

Temple of the Sun.

Although it’s called the Inca Trail, there were originally several routes; this one stretched from Quito down to Argentina. Most people, when they think of the Inca Trail, think only of the path to Machu Picchu, but Ecuador’s trail has a lot to offer. Some people spend months hiking the entire distance; these were just three days. I hope to spend more time on the trail in the months to come.

Sandy Posted by Sandy. 1 Comment

New Project: El Último Hielero

I’m very pleased to announce that we have started yet another project. I am in the beginning stages of shooting a short documentary called El Último Hielero, or The Last Ice Merchant.

To explore the rapid generational changes within indigenous communities, I’m following a man named Baltazar, who is known here as the last ice merchant. Twice a week for the last 55 years he has trekked over 10 km to the fossilized glaciers on Chimborazo—to an altitude of about 16,000 feet—with his donkeys. There he hacks away at ice, breaks it into blocks, wraps it in hay and brings it back down to store in a hole in the ground so that he can sell it at the Saturday market for $2.50 a piece.

I followed Baltazar for two days last week to shoot preliminary footage and am coordinating time to head over for an extended period. Following is a promo video to show what exactly he does as a hielero.



Sandy Posted by Sandy. 2 Comments