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.

posted by Sandy in Uncategorized and have Comments (1,470)

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.



posted by Sandy in Uncategorized and have Comments (2,036)

Farewell, Urbina Station House

After 22 years under his operation, Rodrigo has to return the Urbina station house to the railroad company. The government is reclaiming it for the railway rehabilitation program, in which they will renovate it along with all the other stations. By the end of Jan. 30, he had to have the entire property cleared out.

Rodrigo caries items to his house across the railroad tracks.

Rodrigo caries items to his house across the railroad tracks.

The Urbina station house is unique in that, under Rodrigo’s management, it has been the only station under regular operation in the last 14 years. Here he has housed travelers, provided employment for his team of workers, given workshops on mountain climbing and railroad history, and sold local crafts. It has been a mainstay of Rodrigo’s business for over two decades.

Urbina station house has been a big part of Rodrigo's business for over two decades.

Urbina station house has been a big part of Rodrigo's business for over two decades.

Items that have accumulated over 22 years.

Items that have accumulated over 22 years.

When he originally started running the house, it didn’t even have a bathroom. Rodrigo and his workers installed an addition in the back with toilets, showers and hot water. On the way out, he is now reclaiming the raw materials to use on other projects, including toilets, faucets, and even drywall.

It takes a team of workers to dismantle the bathroom.

It takes a team of workers to dismantle the bathroom.

The drywall is removed from the ceiling.

The drywall is removed from the ceiling.

By the end of the day, the house is empty. Once the renovation is complete, Rodrigo hopes to get the station house back under a new business plan. He would like to run it as a coop, sharing an equal stake with his workers. There is no guarantee, though, that he will be able to regain the property. We’ve been very lucky to be able to stay at the station house on a few occasions and we hope that one day we will be able to return.

Come the end of the day, the house is empty.

Come the end of the day, the house is empty.

Of course, Rodrigo always finds a way to make light of any situation…and this is no exception. Much to his llama’s chagrin, he poses for one last picture.

Rodrigo still finds a way to have fun.

Rodrigo still finds a way to have fun.

posted by Sandy in Uncategorized and have Comments (536)

Return to Urbina

It’s good to be back in Urbina. The air is thin and cool, the population is sparse, and the call of the donkeys rings like a reliable alarm clock early in the morning. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the llamas, alpacas, and those in between. We are staying at Rodrigo’s house that, at 3,600 meters (about 12,000 feet), sits at the highest point of the railroad. When the sky is clear, you can see Chimborazo, the tallest mountain in Ecuador, sitting as a backdrop behind the farms that cover the land.

Llamas outside Rodrigo's house in Urbina.

Llamas outside Rodrigo's house in Urbina.

Unlike the standoffish llamas, the donkeys are quite social and friendly. I try to visit them in the morning and evening to greet them and rub their ears. As I approach, they know what is coming and prepare a stance accordingly.

A donkey bows to have his ears rubbed.

A donkey bows to have his ears rubbed.

Rodrigo always has many projects that he is juggling. It’s amazing that he even finds time to sleep. Here he is standing in front of a hut on which he is installing a new thatch roof. This hut will be a home once it is complete.

Rodrigo in front of his new hut.

Rodrigo in front of his new hut.

Inside Rodrigo's new hut.

Inside Rodrigo's new hut.

His goal is to always build as ecologically as possible. This roof is made from a quick-growing plant called paga that is cut only a stones throw away.

The roof is made from local, sustainable materials.

The roof is made from local, sustainable materials.

It only took one more day of work to finish. Upon completion, Rodrigo’s workers celebrated with a loud blow of a horn.

Fabian and Angel on top of the new roof.

Fabian and Angel on top of the new roof.

A celebratory blow of the horn upon completion.

A celebratory blow of the horn upon completion.

I tried to celebrate as well, but ended up with only tepid squeaks and a horn full of spit.

A failed attempt at blowing the horn.

A failed attempt at blowing the horn.

posted by Sandy in Uncategorized and have Comments (1,293)