Video: Trenzas de Paja

Trenza, simply translated, means braid. Paja, slang aside (more on that here), means hay. In this video, I follow Rodrigo´s workers as they create trenzas de paja, which they will string over their new thatch roof to help prevent wind damage. The benefits of this building method are twofold; it is both ecologically sound, being made of the same locally grown plants as the roof, and it is a decorative finishing touch for what will soon be a home. By the end of the process, a 25 meter rope has been spun from nothing more than a loose pile of hay.



Quick note: You´ll notice that there are actually two languages being spoken in this video. You may recognize the Spanish, but the other one is Quichua, a language that you´ll hear frequently within the Andean indigenous communities.

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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.

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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.

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Home again… but not for long!

Well, we are all home – Brooklyn, NY; Bethesda, MD; and Santa Monica, CA – but not for long! We already have plans to return to Ecuador.

But first comes the sorting of digital video, development/scanning of large- and medium-format photos, transcription of notes, and writing of follow-up emails.

We would like to take a moment to thank all the wonderful folks who helped make this expedition possible on the ground – especially team member Rodrigo Donoso, driver Juan Santos, and Rodrigo’s staff, Fabian, Delfin and Angel.

We met so many wonderful folks (like our double-trouble twins from Huigra in the top photo) who helped us along our way. Here are just a few…


Thank you, thank you, thank you all! We’ll see you again soon!

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Urbina Station… and beyond!

Set on the slopes of the colossal Chimborazo Mountain – King of the Andes – Urbina Station is the highest point of the old G&Q Railway, at 11,800 ft. (3,640 m). Urbina, which is also used as an acclimatization station for mountain climbers, is under the management and care of our team member, Rodrigo Donoso.

When we arrived, Rodrigo’s llamas and alpacas were hanging out along the old railroad tracks in front, munching on a late-afternoon snack of grass. Maximilliano Donoso the Dog leapt off the front porch to greet us with a frenzied welcome. Rodrigo’s adorable daughter, Ariana, showed us how she rides a fuzzy alpaca; the most important part is to hold on tight and have a good time.

Rodrigo also raises guinea pigs (cuy), of which he currently has about a dozen. The boy cuy have it the worst – they get eaten – while the girls stay alive to have babies. Cuy are peppy little furry balls of speed that make squeaky noises that sound like “Cuy! Cuy! Cuy!” Katie fell in love with a baby cuy.

The main room of Urbina is warm and friendly, with a fire going in the wood stove. The seats are padded with colorful hand-woven cushions. The wooden walls are adorned with artwork of Ecuador’s mountains, Edward Whymper illustrations, Simon Bolivar’s lover – Manuela Zaens, and Che Guevara portraits. The floors are all wooden; Rodrigo’s workers have an interesting technique for scrubbing the floors – they move steel wool about with their boots to scrub the wood.

The food served at Urbina Station is incredible, starting out with what Araby called “Frog Butter” – squashed avocadoes – on bread. The soups – quinoa, cauliflower, and potato with fava beans – were awesome. Sliced bread to accompany the soups is toasted on a black slice of volcanic rock on top of the wood stove. We ate mellocos – which look like little baby potatoes, but are not – as well as lupin beans, plantains, babako and melons.

Chimborazo is a mountain of many moods, and the source of many legends. For example, if a thunderstorm arrives and a woman doesn’t hurry from the field and into the house, rumor is that she gets pregnant from Chimborazo. The resulting baby – Chimborazo’s child – is an albino. The nickname for the albino babies is “Chimborazo.” In fact, a number of albinos do live on the slopes of Chimborazo. Sandy and Rodrigo ventured out early in the cold mornings for photo shoots, and managed to get two excellent days of Chimborazo shots. The snow-topped mountain is usually obscured by clouds and fog, and sometimes the mountain doesn’t appear for 10-12 days.

While at Ubrina, 17 new FEEP railroad guides-in-training arrived for a presentation on the construction of the G&Q Railway, now called FEEP. You’d think a two-hour talk/PowerPoint would put them all to sleep, but they seemed very interested in the history, and glad to be there. Here is a photo of us with the guides, in front of the Urbina Station.

Want to visit Urbina Station? Click these links for more information on hiring Rodrigo Donoso as your guide, or staying at Urbina Station. We hope you have as much fun as we did!

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