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.

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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!).

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cotopaxiproductions/el-ultimo-hielero-the-last-ice-merchant

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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.

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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.



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