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Huayna Potosí? Sure, I’ll Climb That!

Zongo Dam, and Mt. Huayna Potosí

Heya dearest,

I thought of you when I was axe-picking my way up the mountainside of Huanya Potosí last week. You’ve told me of all the adventures you had while living in Ecuador, including a story about climbing Cotopaxi using an ice axe which I’d thought was, let’s say…badass adventurous. Nothing I thought I’d end up doing during my travels.

So it happens that this mountain, Huanya Potosí, part of the Cordillera Real range in Bolivia, with a summit reaching 19,974 feet, appeared as a bit of a surprise in my travel itinerary.

A new traveling friend who is climbing his way down South America had it a part of his itinerary, and he needed a second person to make the tour possible. I don’t think he ever really asked me to go, but at some point while listening to him talk about it, I said, “I’ll go with ya.”

In my mind, I was like, “Why not? I’ve never climbed a mountain.” I’d been stuck in a slightly depressed thinking rut lately after getting sick repeatedly and having to be hospitalized in Cusco. It was time to plunge into something different–and challenging. Climbing a mountain seemed like an excellent way to get my mind on to something radically new.

Peter, my traveling friend, was surprised to hear me I’d come with him, and proceeded to give me the facts: “It’s going to be at a really high altitude. Do you have medicine to take? And you’ll have to use crampons and an ice axe. There might be some crawling and/or climbing toward the top. It’ll be three days—we might be sleeping in tents the second night, at high camp. You OK with all that?”

It’s true, I was in a bit of denial when I shrugged and said, “Sounds fantastic, I’ll do it.” Anyway–isn’t that the way you should go about life? Being open-minded? That IS the way I go about life, and as my older expat friend Claire pointed out to me in her kitchen in Mindo, Ecuador, that means life can bring great highs and great lows—more so than for those who do not take risks at all.  

In La Paz, where I was already gasping for air just walking to the tour office, Peter and I met Marcus, a German, as well as Eduardo, our sturdy and soft-spoken guide. Eduardo is from the La Paz area and speaks English, Spanish, and Aymara, an indigenous language of the area. He’s also been doing climbs for over thirty-eight years.

The refugio, an unheated lodge alongside Zongo Dam.

We reached the refugio,an unheated lodge near a dam at the base of the mountain, and settled in for the afternoon while we waited for the sleet and hail to let up. Eduardo was going to take us out to a glacier about a forty minute hike away and teach us how to use our ice axe and crampons. Peter and Marcus had both used them before, but I hadn’t, so I was glad for the lesson.

Eduardo teaching me the proper way to walk on a glacier with crampons and an ice axe.

After we returned we had dinner, which was savory vegetable soup, bread, and a savory pastel de quinoa. The latter was the Andean equivalent of lasagna using quinoa instead of pasta, and it was delicious. We bundled up for the evening in our gear and I went to sleep in my coat and overall snowpants, wondering what the hell I’d signed up for.

The visceral anxiety didn’t really set in until the next day after lunch, when again we waited for the weather to clear, and I compulsively ate cream crackers in my room all morning, not having much else to do, and dozed on and off in my bed, always fighting off a chill, and waiting for Eduardo to call us for the ascent.  At some point Peter woke me up and it was time go.

Besides our cook, a round woman who kept her head covered in a knit hat, there had been only men so far on this expedition, including the guides and the other groups staying in the lodge. I was secretly pleased to see a woman named Eva, also from Germany, waiting to come with us. She immediately helped me fasten my ice axe properly to my bag and offered one of her trekking poles for me to use, which I was happy to accept. Then we set off: Peter, Marcus, Eva and I along with Eduardo and his nephew Umberto.

Eating dairy in the morning, my friend, is not recommended before a strenuous high-altitude hike. It took the kind of minute-by-minute marathon running mentality for me to complete the three hours amidst stomach pains and ahem, bloating, up the mountain to the high camp. Once there, Eduardo, stared me down with a concerned, hard look and said, “You must look at your condition. You must see if you can climb in the morning. It is four hours to the summit, but then we must climb all the way down. You must really look at your condition.”

Later, while sitting on the rocks overlooking the clouded mountains that semi-buried the Bolivian Cordillera Real range, I pondered whether I really had the “condition” to climb up to the summit. Was it my indigestion or my fitness causing the problems? My lungs still burned after the hike up. I’ve always been fit, having been a runner for many years, and also someone used to doing yoga and moderate weight lifting; but I had to admit, I felt like crap climbing up that day. Marcus persuaded me that I should at least try a little. He himself was not certain of his ability to get to the summit, and so we decided to pair up in the morning.

High Camp, at 5200 meters, or 17,060 feet.

“Morning” of course means waking at midnight after a night of labored, shallow breathing and a struggle to stay warm. Climbers from the day before returning to the refugio warned it was nearly impossible to sleep at the altitude—you felt like you were heaving for breath the whole night—and I found this was true for me. Eduardo, over soup, rolls and hot dogs the evening before, told us to simply “rest our bodies”, if possible.

So that’s what I did all night in the orange shed outside of which the gelid wind howled—a familiar sound, given I grew up in Minnesota. I rested and heaved and dozed on and off. At midnight I got up and dressed with the others, because I’d already decided hiking in the snow would be preferable to lying in a dark shed in the clouds unable to sleep for the next five hours.

When we woke at midnight, Eduardo and Umberto heated water and suggested putting in half cold and half warm into our bottles, which we did. We ate some dry bread, had some tea and coffee, and then put on our gear—layers of warm winter wear, including my overall snowpants, crampons, a helmet, a harness for the ropes that would keep my group of three–Umberto, Marcus, and me–together, my backpack with my water bottle. Eduardo roped up with Eva and Peter, the two experienced climbers in the group, and took off; Umberto, who I could tell right away was not excited to be guiding the “slow” group—namely Marcus and I—reminded us to consider our “condition” even after we’d only been trudging the snow in the dark for half an hour. I felt my normal self, actually—my digestive tract having cleared itself of the last of the dairy molecules it could not digest.

What I discovered is that, if you find a slow pace and a rhythm for your breath, you can do just fine. Yes, you feel like you can’t go on sometimes, and your lungs burn and long for dear ol’ oxygen, but for the most part, you just keep moving.

A narrow footpath in the powdery, dark shimmering snow along the slopes led the way, and I was reminded of my time playing in winter as a child—hours upon hours in the same kind of sparking material, even after the sun set. It felt like I was playing again, even though this was much more strenuous.

We used our ice axes to anchor every step, and our pace soon transformed into a walking meditation: sink axe in, left foot forward then right, lift and sink again, left foot forward then right; so on and so forth. For hours in the dark we marched to this beat and as we ascended under a half moon and a spread of stars and their clustered constellations. As we rose higher, La Paz emerged in the south, a deep orange blanket of lights, cradled between the black silhouettes of neighboring mountains.

It took somewhere between four and five hours to reach the summit. We paused often; and each time Umberto asked us if we were tired, and we said yes, and he would ask if we wanted to continue, and we said yes. He would often complain of wanting to sleep, rolling onto his back when we were taking a water break, which I would roll my eyes at. Later I found out that some guides try to tire out or persuade clients to turn around when the hike got tough, so their day was shorter.

The details of the hike and those four hours are somewhat washed away in my mind; however, I do remember hiking up precipitous slopes where we had to sink our axe in well lest we slid down the slope for a very, very long time. At one point my crampon got stuck on the cord of the other foot in one of these precipitous places; Umberto, not understanding I was stuck, kept yanking at the rope uniting us and urging, “Vamos, vamos,” which became the general refrain to both Marcus and me whenever we slowed down.

Somehow we made it the final wall filled with narrow, powdered switchback trails. At several points we had to haul ourselves up around rocks, which really catches your breath and gets your heart pumping; Marcus paused and stared at us with wide eyes for several moments halfway up while Umberto yanked the rope and urged “Vamos, Vamos”; I heard two German women behind us start to wail behind us, asking their guide if they were almost at the top, and when he assured them they were, they still cried and held each other and said, “We must finish!”

We three made it to the summit, and Umberto snapped a few photos of me holding up my ice axe. And we were damn lucky: the sunrise was magnificent, and the sky clear with just a smattering of clouds burying some of the mountains around us. The two German girls stopped crying and began celebrating at the top and before our eyes peeled their shirts off for a topless backside photo op.

I felt victorious: my mind and limbs rejoiced as I paused to take in the splendid view from the summit. I’d never climbed a mountain before.

The way down was quicker but still difficult: our legs were wobbly, and the steep parts caused us to slide and lose our footing. Once, on the only segment that our group agreed was perhaps a little bit tricky, perhaps unsafe due to a steep and very long slope and a few small crevasses, Umberto reminded us to“concentrate” and go “slowly.” For some reason I slipped here immediately, and on impulse threw my axe in the slope above me while Umberto drew up the rope to stop my slide with a snap of his arm. I laughed but Umberto scolded me, asking me why I didn’t listen to him.

“I thought I was concentrating,” I said, laughing because I couldn’t help it, and thereafter I tread carefully down the slope. We reached the final stretch of mountainside that cut horizontally across toward our high camp, and found our crampons filling with melted, crusty snow. Marcus slipped and we held the ropes tight as we slid down onto his belly and took a moment to catch his breath. Again, Umberto yanked the ropes and said, “Vamos, vamos,”. Marcus lay defiantly for several minutes more on his belly, glaring at Umberto, before pulling himself up by his axe onto the path again.

When we made it back to high camp, I tore my crampons off and lay in the sun on a rock laughing deliriously, my body swimming in endorphins and my mind flooded with images of the trail, of the views, of the German girls crying and then ripping their sweaters off at the summit. The morning had been an absolute success.

Hours later we sat for soup and Pringles in the chilly refugio, all of us still a bit stunned at what we’d done that morning. Eva, in her late thirties, told us of her love for mountaineering and climbing. She and I talked briefly about how few women had climbed the mountain that morning, and we couldn’t help but feel proud to have done it.

We rode back in our bus to La Paz in dozy, pensive silence.

Mal, I felt changed in some way after climbing Mount Huayna Potosí; I definitely surprised myself completing the climb, as it was probably the most physically demanding event of my life. The endorphins certainly lasted for days after; and I think all four of us were still in a daze of accomplishment at what we’d done when we went for dinner. Supposedly the climb is not “hard”, and yet I’d say we all felt it was extremely challenging due to the high altitude.

I thought you might be proud of your bookish friend for climbing a mountain. 

Lots of xoxo,

Cici

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To A Friend in Minneapolis: Let Me Tell You About Peru

Cusco: Chocolate Cookies and Kitties

I’ts time to catch you up on my recent wanderings!

Cusco, Peru, was a lovely place to exist for the past three weeks. A tourist-soaked city, yes, but full of Incan and Spanish architecture, a wonderfully warm culture, delicious food and drinks, and plenty to do in terms of tours to the Sacred Valley (Machu Picchu, of course, but there’s so much more than that). 

I stayed in a lovely apartment through Airbnb in the historic San Blas neighborhood, cohabitating with two lovely white cats who adopted me quickly. Their owner, a fashion designer, is on vacation in Europe for a few weeks, and so I lived as if I had my own home with cats in Cusco.

All this has been a respite for me, a solo woman traveler who has experienced quite a bit of unwanted attention, mostly obnoxious and tiresome, always uncomfortable, in the past weeks in Ecuador and now here in Peru.

But Cusco’s different: a snug place where it’s easy to find other travel companions, there were ample, comfortable opportunities to be myself, dining alone and reading a book in restaurants and cafes around the main plaza, without looking like an invitation for a conversation and solicitation of personal information by male employees. In short, I’ve caught my breath, made new friends, and enjoyed taking Spanish lessons again.

And the food! I’ve indulged in vegan chocolate chip cookies and vegan pizzas; and enjoyed trying chicha morada (made from maize) and pisco sours (liquor with lemon and whipped egg whites). I’ve tried grilled alpaca (delicious and rich, reminiscent of elk), roast cuey, (guinea pig) numerous Andean soups, potato dishes (hundreds of edible potatoes here, so nourishing!) quinoa dishes, and fresh fruits from San Pedro Mercado.

Bakery in San Blas, Cusco.

The Sacred Valley: Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, obviously. 

I thought of you when I visited the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu. I almost skipped them; the thought of how many tourists pour through the place unsettled me. (I’m not a crowd person). But visiting the clouded mountaintop citadel was as fascinating and awe-inducing as I expected, and due to the time of year, November—it was pretty chill at the citadel when I went.

Even still, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad while walking amid the massive stones that sit so well together; I’d been planning on hiking in on the Camino Inca with a friend to the ruins, but both my foot and that friendship suffered, and I had to change my plans entirely.

Condor flying over Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley.

The day before I rode the train to Machu Picchu (or more accurately, Aguas Calientes–you have to then hike or take a bus up the mountain to the ruins), I signed up for a “horsehike” out of Ollantaytambo, one of the pretty Inca villages in the Sacred Valley. (You can also catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, from Ollantaytambo).

Visiting a tomb in the Sacred Valley. 

I went out with a guide named Richard, nicknamed “Condor”, and his friend David. The two showed me the Canteras de Cachiccata, where the Inca mined the rocks used for their dwellings, as well as a tomb still used today.

“Piedras cansadas”, those stones left in transit when the Spanish arrived, lay scattered all around the mountainside. Massive-cut stones taller than me, it’s easy to get caught staring at them in amazement, wondering how the heck anyone could have moved those, much less cut them, on a regular basis. At one point, while sitting on one of these stones, snacking on a banana, I noticed my guide and David had snuck off to smoke an apple. Between puffs, they conversed in a veil of chuckles. 

“Y cómo fue la manzana de marijuana?” I asked them with an easy smile when they returned. They thought they were being sneaky; but I recognized their fruity pipe from the beginning, and could smell the marijuana smoke.

Richard, my horseback riding guide, and I both have injured feet–but we’re both positive we will heal. 

I happened to be puffing away on my tobacco pipe when I asked this. We laughed, got the horses and headed back down the mountain, talking about Quechua food and traditions and the local religious tradition of Choquekillka, a patron deity of the town. Condor also pointed out the single house perched high on the side of the mountain opposite us cumbia music inundating the valley with cumbia music (ubiquitous in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia), a surprise soundtrack for my horsehike day. 

Maras, Rainbow Mountain, and Ayahuasca Ceremonies

Maras Salt Pools, or Salineras de Maras.
Rainbow Mountain: A difficult climb, due to the altitude. (17,100 feet!)

The gorgeous Maras salt pools, in operation since pre-Inca times, managed by local families, were delightful to visit one afternoon. You can wander the pools and watch locals pick up salt in large bowls. 

The day after visiting the salt pools, I hiked up Rainbow Mountain with a friend. The climb is literally breathtaking at 17,000 feet. The last 30 minutes I inched my feet upward while using a breathing technique I learned from my long distance running days in order to get the oxygen swiftly into my lungs. The summit offered a cold gray cloud instead of a rainbow, but that was all right; the scenery along the way was worth the effort.

Did I mention that I participated in an ayahuasca retreat in the Sacred Valley? I, along with eleven other participants from around the world, were led in two ceremonies conducted in the traditional way by a Shipibo shaman. A controversial choice for a gal like me from Minnesota, indeed. However, many travelers explore ayahuasca while visiting Peru, and last year while planning I had ample opportunity to learn about it and consider its possible side effects. Michael Pollan’s book, “How to Change your Mind” influenced my choice.

At the retreat.

Though I confess I don’t plan to take a drug like that ever again, or at least not for a long time, ayahuasca did calm my mind. The best analogy? It was as if I hired someone to come take out, dust, clean, and re-prioritize all the contents of my mind—when I say all, I mean all; the insecurities, the desires, the heartbreaks, the shortcomings, all the good and bad that comprise who I am. In truth, it was uncomfortable reviewing a number of those things within a sparking, colorful psychedelic film taking place in my head. But afterward, a recent heartbreak suddenly seemed distant and in the past, shelved as it should be; the decisions I need to make for the future seemed manageable but also shelved in their proper place. Also, the pressing priority after I left the retreat was to connect with family and close friends, just because, and because it was Thanksgiving weekend. 

While there, I asked staff (which includes: a nurse, a psychologist, a general practitioner doctor, among others) how long the effects would last, they claimed at least two weeks, but longer—hopefully a lifetime—if I cultivated techniques such as meditation in order to maintain the changes induced by ayahuasca. Time will tell how long-lasting the results are. (If you are interested in learning more, please contact me–there are a number of “sham” ayahuasca retreats in South America, so it’s important to do your research.)

Right now I’m sitting in La Paz, Bolivia, just returned from climbing Huayna Potosi–the most physically demanding event of my life. I’m enjoying Bolivia so far, and will be writing about it soon!

Hope all is well in the land of ice and snow, my friend.

~Cici

Rainbow Mountain–the only rainbow I saw was on this Cusco flag someone brought up. 
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Chocolate’s Point of No Return: Tasting Fine Chocolate in Ecuador

Toasted Nacional beans, ground, then cooled into a block, then whisked into a hot chocolate.

When I went into the Amazon basin for a few weeks to teach English in an indigenous community, I made sure to pack a whisk and plenty of unsweetened cacao paste tablets so that I could have a hot chocolate every morning. That, along with rice, eggs, and ketchup were my staple foods. 

One morning, while scratching the new welts on my ankles left from the itch mites who shared the tent with me, I stared down at my plastic cup of whisked chocolate and wondered if I shouldn’t do something more with this god food. After all, I was sitting in the Amazon jungle with a cup of the thick, pleasurable substance. It was the one consumable I couldn’t do without; it gave me a dose of comfort and enjoyment during my isolating and at times very uncomfortable jungle stay.

As if the gods divined my thoughts, a fellow school teacher, Gladys, walked by with papaya to share. While watching me whisk up a cup of hot chocolate for her and her daughter, she said, “Carlos is out planting cacao today.”

This piqued my curiosity. When Carlos walked by the hut to say “Good morning,” I asked him about his new project. 

A grin spread easily across his face. “I planted cacao this morning!”

“That’s grand, that’s great,” I said quickly, and then paused before I asked, “And what kind of cacao?”

His grin fading, Carlos’ face wrinkled slightly. “I don’t really know, Cici. I don’t really know.”

I knew if it was a hybrid he was planting, it was not likely he’d get much money for it. And certainly those who would make craft chocolate and who would selectively pay well for cacao would not want the beans. “I see,” I responded carefully. “Wonderful. People love chocolate.”

As I lay in my tent at night, as I sat by my fire watching rice cook during the day, I kept thinking about chocolate. I needed to know more.

Back to Mindo, Land of Trees and Chocolate Factories

After I left the Amazon, I decided to rent a room in Mindo, so I could gaze at trees, write, and eat chocolate from El Quetzal, the chocolate factory I’d visited on a previous trip to Mindo, where I’d met Joe, the owner, and talked to him about direct trade and the plight of cacao production worldwide. Although I’d enjoyed Nacional cacao before thanks to a Minneapolis chocolate company called K’ul (now closed, unfortunately) which specialized in fine cacao single-origin bars, it was at Joe’s factory where I became aware of what Nacional actually stood for: fine, complex flavor,usually described as earthy and floral. I also was starting to learn that Nacional was in danger of becoming extinct, to be taken over by hybrid cacao cultivars that lacked in flavor complexity, namely CCN-51.

Once settled in Mindo, I decided to visit the other chocolate factory in town, Yumbos, which opened two years ago and has won awards for their 60% chocolate bars both years they’ve been operating. Sharif, my tour guide, started out by serving me with a bitter and thick, robust hot chocolate. He then gave a now somewhat familiar explanation of the two main varieties of cacao in Ecuador: CCN-51,which is high-yield, disease resistance hybrid with little taste complexity;and Nacional, Ecuador’s heirloom cacao, one that was almost wiped out in the early 20th century. Next, he showed me example equipment used to ferment beans—for demonstration purposes only, since fermentation happens at the cacao farm itself—and then the grinding and conching room, and then tempering room, where a woman was carefully filling plastic molds with tempered chocolate.

Claudia and Pierre showing off their latest award, for their 60% dark chocolate bar. 

Claudia Ponce and Pierre Molinari, the owners of Yumbos, explained that they work with and support women cacao farmers in the Esmeraldas region of Ecuador. All of this information stimulated my interest in the chocolate industry, and led me to back up to El Quetzal to ask Joe about a chocolate making apprenticeship. While there, I got coffee and started searching for articles on Nacional cacao online. A series of blog posts by Jerry Toth, co-founder of To’ak Chocolate, appeared, and so for the next few hours, I immersed myself in an intriguing survey of genetic morphologies of cacao fruit and what typifies a Nacional cacao fruit.

Delights of the cacao fruit: Joe shared with me his perfectly balanced, smooth and strong housemade “vodka” made from distilled cacao fruit juice. 

When Joe came down to the café again, I mentioned what I was reading. He said, “Well, you should talk to Jerry yourself, because he’ll be here tomorrow, doing a test batch for his chocolate using our equipment.”

I’d never heard of To-ak Chocolate before and only had a vague sense of what the company was about, if only that it focused on making chocolate from an endangered variety of Nacional cacao.

Rare Nacional Cacao: Not a Nib is Wasted

The next day I found Jerry in the roasting and winnowing room with an employee of El Quetzal. Tall, lanky, wearing a hair net, he and a staff member were heavily invested in weighing the nibs they’d just finished roasting, cracking and winnowing, calculating how much to use for a test batch.

I introduced myself and we briefly chatted about his blog posts and the rareness of the kind of cacao he worked with. I’d briefly glimpsed the prices of the chocolate, which both stunned and intrigued me—and had this vaguely in mind while we spoke.

At one point Jerry scooped up some of the nibs and poured a generous amount in my hand to try. They were decadently earthy and complex—a cacao flavor I was only beginning to know and appreciate. In fact, the nibs were so rich I couldn’t finish them, and in a moment of classy awkwardness, I handed them back, saying, “I can’t finish them. But I don’t want to waste them, these nibs of gold.” I was about to drop them into the vat when Jerry shuffled his notebook from his hand, said, “Wait,” and collected the nibs before they dropped. He tipped his head back and finished them off.

After explaining that they were calculating the cacao mass percentage, the chocolate makers moved with an established test batch weight to another room where they ground the nibs into a paste—it has the consistency of freshly ground peanut butter. When Jerry came out, we sat for a few moments on the stairs, and between jotting notes and texting he answered all my pressing chocolate-related questions, such as, is it true that some cacao varieties have more theobromine in it than others (Yes, Nacional has more); and is Nacional the best kind of cacao out there, as in, is it better than Criollo (He paused and said, “I wouldn’t say the best—it’s not an objective science; but I like it best for many reasons. People love Criollo because it is gentle and fruity”).

We launched into a conversation about our hot chocolate habits. For Jerry, it’s a thick hot chocolate every morning in the jungle, usually with peanut butter, eggs, and sometimes oatmeal added in. I told him I’d been obsessed for years with a hot chocolate made with water and 70% chocolate, whisked until frothy. When it was the first thing I had in the morning, it gave me an exhilarating buzz without the crash of coffee.

A group of people touring the factory briefly cut into our conversation. When we resumed, I told him I was interested in making chocolate. He looked at me, perhaps in surprise or skepticism, and said, “But there’s no money in it.”

I laughed sadly and set my notepad down. “Really? All the things I love and want to do lead to poverty, then.”

“It is a creative work,” he concurred. “And you don’t generally make money doing art.” Later I would learn Jerry lives out of a suitcase, traveling between the jungle where he works with a group of farmers who cultivate the cacao used for his company’s chocolate bars, and Quito, where he’ll stay with his co-partner of the company, Carl, when they are making chocolate in the factory there.

“How did you decide to do chocolate?” I asked.

“I started making chocolate to help fund a forest conversation nonprofit I created, Third Alliance,” he explained. “I came to Ecuador to work in forest preservation.”

I did not forget this tidbit of information when I later perused the To’ak website—where I hadn’t seen this connection before.

The Taste of Chocolate

Coincidentally, I’d stumbled upon a Guardian article about Servio Parchard, the Harvest Master of To’ak’s cacao beans, and had already set up a time to go visit him. When I told Jerry this, he smiled and said, “Stay in the Mango House, if you’re not afraid of heights.” So I did just that, and at Servio’s, the chocolate was so good, you could eat it like peanut butter on a banana. (See here for my blog post on my stay at Servio’s farm.)

Servio’s homemade block of chocolate was so compelling that on my 5-hour bus ride back to Mindo from his farm I repeatedly opened the Tupperware in which it sat to simply smell. I could not get over the abundance of its aroma.

At hostels, I’d offer it to people for smelling, and they’d also stand amazed at its strength of complex aroma and nuttiness. Some people claimed it didn’t even smell like chocolate; and for those I offered small samples to, they claimed it hardly even tasted like chocolate the way they knew.

But everyone really liked it. And it made me wonder: What is chocolate supposed to taste like?

At this time, and even still now, I was and am just now beginning to encounter the vast possible sensory delights chocolate can offer, starting with Mindo Chocolate, Yumbo’s Chocolate, and then Servio’s homemade chocolate block.

To’ak Chocolate: Laphroaig Scotch-Infused Chocolate, and the “Rot” Harvest Bar

Carl Schweizer, showing off one of his company’s fine chocolate bars. 

Given it was my birthday in October, and I hadn’t really properly celebrated it, I decided to splurge on To’ak Chocolate’s lovely $125 Chocolate and Art Tour in Quito, which took place in Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín’s richly decorated house overlooking the city.

A sumptuous tour, I’d say; I felt heady walking around the artist’s home, dreaming of the chocolate tasting that awaited me in the wine cellar at the end of the tour. The large, generous paintings of Guayasamín’s stimulated my mind;the light connection of the tour to the creativity of To’ak’s chocolate making process grew my anticipation for the tasting. 

In the artist’s studio. 

Carl Schweizer, Jerry’s partner who is originally from Austria, greeted me by the wine cellar wearing a smart suit and his hair swept back cleanly into a bun. His demeanor was a mix of austere intellectuality and open, warm nerdiness; the way he patiently went through the history of To’ak’s journey, the story behind the Nacional cacao bean, while I impulsively asked questions and detoured him  constantly, was impressive.

Carl walked me through a lengthy albeit engrossing story of how To’ak Chocolate came into existence. After Jerry moved to Ecuador a decade ago and started a nonprofit dedicated to rainforest conservation, he became interested in making chocolate; he and Carl met up to discuss chocolate making; after that, Carl spoke with the anthropologist Francisco Valdez about a nearly extinct, rare variety of cacao called Nacional found on the reserve, which Valdez claimed at the time—and as of last month, is confirmed to be—the original cacao variety, evolved over thousands of years in the tropics of Ecuador. Jerry and Carl devised starting a chocolate company based on working with farmers to preserve this heirloom cacao,a flavor gift to the world. Once the company was started, the vision of preserving this cacao and cacao diversity while offering the world a luxury chocolate unlike any other out there solidified, and the company has not looked back since. To’ak Chocolate unites rainforest conversation, an ethical business model, and a tantalizing luxury chocolate.

Chocolate, Carl continued, especially a fine flavor cacao like Nacional, has over 800 flavor compounds—more diverse than wine—and offers a taste experience unique onto itself.

“What we realized is…chocolate tasting is eye-opening. It opens the door toward the senses…what’s so beautiful about this flavor complexity is that it only exists when we receive products from a healthy ecosystem.” He paused to let this sink in, and then said, as if telling a fairytale, his light German accent adding to the ambience of the mood, “If my daughter grew up in a world that’s black and white; everything would be in grayscale. But imagine that there are stories, lots of stories about the world of colors. So she breaks out and discovers the colors. Lost colors.”

“Yes,” I say, feeling the metaphor was apt in describing the spread of monoculture occurring today.

“This is what is going on with food diversity. It is becoming black and white—but we are pushing to expand diversity in flavor. We don’t talk a lot about it but it is what’s driving our project. Diversity is the DNA of our project. The world of fine flavor cacao versus industrial cacao. With industrial cacao, we lose flavor.”

By the time we started the tasting, I felt a little nervous. I had the odd fear that my taste buds would fail me (they did not, thank goodness). Per Carl’s instructions, I carefully picked up each chocolate sample with a bamboo tasting utensil and smelled them. Unfortunately the room temperature was just a bit too cool for me to experience the aroma properly through the nose, but once I put apiece on my tongue, the flavor experience opened wide, like a movie starting across a screen.

Sample number one was shockingly creamy and the first descriptors that came to mind were silky smooth, caramel, and milky. Sublime would be another word to use with this first sample. It sang like a Brahms cello piece—steady, strong, creamy, somewhat familiar and so much  finer than any other chocolate I’d tasted.

“What percentage is this chocolate?” I asked, stunned. It didn’t even taste like dark chocolate.

“73% cacao,” Carl said. “It’s our Rain Harvest 2015 Light. What I like about our chocolates is that every time you try it, you discover something new. This chocolate has matured. It has this gentle acidity still there, red berries,cranberries. When I tasted it earlier, I even got a bit of plum.”

The second sample was wild. I put the sample on my tongue and felt like I was going for a ride—needed to hang on a bit. There was fruit, there was floral, and there were sharp peaks and drops. I could envision how dark this chocolate was; it had no caramel tameness. It finished bright, tannic. This was a wild tasting chocolate to me, and I liked it immensely. It reminded me vaguely of Stravinsky’s violin concerto—bright tones,harsh movements, interspersed with melodic segments. Highly stimulating, and intellectual.

Carl was watching me. “That would be the bar we made from beans during the worst climate year ever.”

“Really?”I asked, fascinated. The lingering profile was still settling into my tongue and throat.

Carl explained the beans were harvested during the El Niño year of 2016, when there was flooding in the cacao growing regions of Ecuador. A terroir unlike other years completely transformed the cacao beans’ personality.  

“The Rot Harvest Bar,” I said, christening it.

“Or actually, our Rain Harvest 2016 El Niño,” he corrected. “It’s 78% cacao beans.”

The third sample, called Rain Harvest 2017, had the smooth tameness, and creaminess of the first, which gave my palette some respite. At 76% cacao mass, it was still mellow and creamy. And so completely different from the previous bar. Another cello piece, I’d venture.

The fourth bar nearly brought me to tears. It was smooth, it was delicate, it was mellow,it melted well, and it released a familiar, well-loved flavor onto my palette. “It has liquor in it?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Do I have to guess what?” I said, laughing.

“Yes.”

“Scotch,” I said easily after letting it melt further.

“Yes. Can you taste the peatiness?”

“Indeed. I love it.” I had tears in my eyes by then, I was that excited. “But how did you do it?” The ingredients of each bar of To’ak chocolate are only cacao beans and sugar.

Carl smiled. “This is our Vintage 2015 Islay Cask, 73%, matured for 2 years in single malt Islay Laphroig barrels.”

“Incredible,”was all I could say as I finished the chocolates off with a sip of aged Don Julio tequila.  

After I left the tasting, I wandered down to the Capilla del Hombre, and gazed up at the murals painted by Guayasamín, happily still enjoying the lingering taste of To’ak chocolate on my tongue.

The Point of No Return: the Finest Flavored Chocolate

Here in Peru I’m exploring chocolate as well, though I am disappointed so far. What to do when you bite into a single origin bar from Tumbe, by Chocomuseo, you find its texture a bit rough, and it melts into a flat waxy flavor, with nothing to offer, no symphony to caress you with? I’d say I had a bit of an existential crisis. That’s not to say I haven’t found some good flavors, but none can compare to what I experienced in Ecuador—so far.

Anyway. See for yourself:  Go have yourself some good chocolate! Single origin, direct trade, bean-to-bar, and let it melt on your tongue to see what happens.

To’ak Chocolate Tasting, complete with an aged Don Julio Tequila. 

If you decide to invest in a To’ak chocolate bar, you invest not only in a disappearing heirloom cacao, but also a healthy business model, the conversation of rainforest, and some of the finest chocolate in the world. Your taste buds will certainly rejoice.

For more reading on the subject of food diversity and flavor, I suggest Simran Sethi’s “Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.”

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Quito: Third Time’s a Charm

Colonial, historical splendor, with mountains: View from the Secret Garden Hostel in Quito, Ecuador.

1st Try Quito: Dusty, Overcast, Lonely

Perhaps it is a silly thing to say, but generally I fall in love with the places I visit, usually for different reasons: Costa Rica for jungles, monkeys and beaches; Mexico for sublime tacos, architecture and history; Colombia for lush green mountains and an excellent experience meeting friends and practicing Spanish at a Spanish language school (see here for the school I studied at); and etc. But Quito and I had a series of misunderstandings the first few times I passed through its bustling white-washed, cracked concrete.

Weepy Jesuses always fascinate me, given I grew up Protestant. The Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, 18th Century

My initial impressions of the city, after arriving tired and exhausted from an overnight flight into an eerily empty hostel, and after spending a few days getting myself arranged for the Amazon, were: Windy, dry, overcast, dusty, square white buildings, cream tones, concrete, buses, clothing black and navy, some white and jeans; white fine bread that disintegrates in your mouth when you are hungry, long bus rides for only 25 cents, tiresome bargaining in taxis, men staring me down such that after a few days I begin to fantasize about shaving my hair entirely and dressing in extremely bulky clothing, lots of cigarettes being sold on every corner, women selling fresh juice and bags of mandarins from the street, a loud, packed street called Amazonas nearby. And it goes on. Not all of these impressions are specifically negative; some are quite positive (lots of fresh fruit and cheap bus fare!).

However, as a person who thrives in forest and green leaves, the dryness and aridness of Quito’s streets, buildings, and landscapes did little to attract my attention. I was also preparing to go into the Amazon that first time in Quito and admittedly had some fear wrapped around me those days leading up to my trip to Puyo and beyond. And given there was only one other person in my hostel, I had no one to go exploring the city with, or even to talk to–thank goodness for Whatsapp and my dear friends back home for filling in the void while I stayed in that lonely hostel.

Sick and Tired the Second Time Around

For my second visit to Quito I stayed at Vibes Hostel in the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, a crashpad after spending a few weeks in the Amazon. Again, circumstances worked against a positive relationship between me and Quito–I was sick with a parasite for days, and couldn’t get myself out to do even the free walking tour or change to a better location. Vibes itself reeked of neglect, and I lamented my choice of hostel when it became clear the place was infested with bed bugs—never before have I seen bed bugs scampering about like that and biting me brazenly in the afternoon. Several mattresses were removed from different rooms while I was there. Furthermore, the Marsical Sucre neighborhood felt rough around the edges–always men about, not many women. After a few days I began to think about shaving my head again.

This sketchy neighborhood, which nonetheless seems to have the most hostels, bars and restaurants, generally clustered around the Plaza Poch, perplexed me. Or was the “sketchy” feeling just my own perception? I’ll admit, a distinct form of paranoia got stuck in my psyche while in the Amazon jungle which I couldn’t quite shake it for many weeks after. The grimy Vibes Hostel and the Marsical neighborhood did little to help me resolve it.

But it wasn’t just me. A fellow female traveler confirmed the hostel and the neighborhood were not appealing, and that she too felt uncomfortable walking around, even in good ol’ broad daylight. We both happily left Vibes and headed to the town of Mindo, where I’d rented a room with a view of trees for the month.

Third time’s a charm

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A Sort of Boring Walking Tour, but it was free, and I made friends!

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I booked my final nights before heading to Peru at The Secret Garden, located on Los Rios in Quito’s Centro Histórico. My my, what a difference a well-run hostel and a grand location make! The hostel, located in a colonial building, had its own myriad charms: narrow corridors and open spaces, many places to chill and work, and a rooftop bar and restaurant overlooking the mountains, the Virgin of el Panecillo, and just generally, lovely, historical, Quito. Amusingly, my first day there I got lost trying to find my room in the multi-floored, brightly decorated hostel with two sets of staircases and narrow stone corridors. I felt like a little kid playing hide and seek.

It was while staying here that Quito’s delights began to reveal themselves: small details like almuerzos to be found in cafes with whiteboards declaring the specials of the day, usually soups, meat, rice and salad, a fruit juice and a dessert; and steaming, thick, sweet and fruity colada morada served up for Dia de los Muertos.

Basílica del Voto Nacional

Given I was not sick—except for the altitude-induced exhaustion and headaches–I went out with groups from the hostel and enjoyed finding chocolate shops, new spots to eat, old cathedrals, and more. We even took a taxi one night back to the Mariscal Sucre neighborhood, where, admittedly, there are many fun places to eat. Still, I’d hold on tight to your belongings in that area, and stay at the Secret Garden.

Posing as Sherlock with my only ad-hoc Halloween prop, my tobacco pipe. In front of the Secret Garden Hostel, Quito.

Quito, I’m glad we made peace and you showed me your magic.

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The Melody of Chocolate

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Freshly roasted Nacional cacao beans, Finca Sarita, Ecuador.

“Hershey’s was really all we had in my small town,” I explain to Servio Pachard Vera, a cacao farmer in the coastal region of Ecuador called Manabí, as we are walking through his grove of cacao trees.

It’s hot, probably in the 80s, and I’m glad for the taller fruit trees—breadfruit, mango, orange trees, for example—that shade us on our walk through his permaculture farm.

Servio laughs. “Really?”

We pause so I can pose for a picture in front of one of the cacao trees that is genetically pure Nacional—a rare variety that many, including Servio, claim has a superior flavor profile to other types of cacao. Then he cuts off a fruit with his machete, slices it open and hands it to me.

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A baby Nacional cacao fruit, on a genetically pure Nacional tree. It will grow into a yellow pod.

I take the pod, which is just a tad smaller than a football, and look at it. I’ve done enough chocolate tours in Ecuador to be familiar now with the fruit. The beans are coated in deliciously tangy white pulp, and I pop several at once into my mouth. “I was allowed to buy one Hershey bar after church on Sundays. And I loved it as a kid, of course.” Feeling the need to explain my evolved taste for chocolate, I quickly tell him, “But now I prefer dark chocolate, 70-80%.”

He smiles kindly at this, and then points at the white webbing left in the fruit pod I’d just emptied. “This is called the placenta,” he explains. “When I was growing up, all the women would sit harvesting the fruit, which was piled high by the men who’d cut it from the trees with machetes. I’d come along, pluck up a pod and eat the placenta.”

“Placenta,” I say with a slight grimace.

“Hershey’s,” he says, laughing ridiculously.

We walk by a tree with a purplish pod, a very beautiful hue in fact. “Is this also a Criollo?” I ask, since he’d already pointed one out earlier.

He explains it is a Criollo, but a mix, because it was planted with a seed and cross-pollinated by other varieties.

“Lots of people like Criollo, correct?” I ask.

“Yes, yes, of course. This type has fruity flavors, in contrast to the Nacional cacao, which has more floral flavors.” It is more difficult to cultivate cacao with more floral flavors, he explains. “The taste is not so different between them, but the Criollo blend is shorter.” He pops a finger from his mouth to emphasize this shortness. “With Nacional, a melody begins in your mouth.” He traces the air lightly, as if the melody was floating like a thread. “Floral, floral, floral, floral, fruity, fruity, floral, floral, floral…” and his voice trails off. “All my life I’ve been tasting chocolate, and I recognize this melody.”

“So you like Nacional the most?” I ask.

“Of course. Because it is the best,” Servio answers without hesitation.

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Servio with the Fermentation Boxes. Each is filled with a specific colony of bacteria, which are important for developing the flavor of the beans.

“What about Ghiradelli, and Lindt chocolate? Have you tried these? They’re very popular in the United States right now, but I don’t like them so much anymore. They don’t taste like much. Except oil.” What I mean is added, cheaper alternative oils used to make smooth, industrial chocolate, such as palm oil.

He tilts his head to the side, ponders the empty fruit pod in his hand, and begins talking, without really answering the question. “Imagine everyone eats Hershey’s, like you did, growing up. They get used to a certain type of flavor, texture. They get used to a certain kind of sugary taste. Or a certain very smooth taste. One with only 20% cacao. The rest, of it is sugar, milk, and soy lecithin. But this chocolate has a very short, flat flavor.”

“Hmmm,” I say, “People like a smooth chocolate.”

He also explained it was hard to know what cacao bean was really being used; for example, the purer Nacional was rare, and hybrid varieties, whose flavor profiles vary, tended to be much more common. “And yet, you’ll see chocolate being sold here all over that’s called Nacional, or Arriba, or Fino de Aroma, even if it isn’t genetically very pure,” he said. “You can taste that it’s not pure Nacional.” (Nacional is also referred to as Arriba or Fino de Aroma.)

“It has melodia,” reiterates Servio, tracing the invisible song in the air.

“Would this be a melody for violin? Or for cello?” I ask. “Or merengue?”

“Ah, ah, ah,” he says. After a moment, he sings a diddy in an impressive falsetto. “A cello,” he says.

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Bad Beans, normally picked out by hand. The kind that American companies buy in bulk. (By the way–those are To’ak beans Servio is harvesting, for those of you familiar with that company!)

He keeps walking, and we sit down at a table where he shows me how to bite the top off an orange and drain out the fruit juice from inside. We sit like this, with oranges pressed to our faces, drinking the juice. When we’ve sucked dry our oranges, he tells me the story of cacao farming in Ecuador. How CCN-51, a highly productive hybrid, is sold to impoverished cacao farmers, and how it’s like growing corn in the US, except there are no subsidies.

“They barely get by. They’re stuck in a cycle,” he says. “They invest in the plants, which, yes, have a very high yield. But they get paid very little, and it doesn’t matter what the beans look like, or whether they are even fermented.” His forehead creases a bit. “The problem is, most clients will buy the same bulk beans from Ivory Coast or Ghana for even cheaper. So it isn’t good for cacao farmers here in Ecuador to cultivate CCN-51.”

I tell Servio that a community in the Amazon I stayed with had begun to plant cacao. I was excited for them. But when I’d asked what type of cacao they were planting, they had no idea. “I suppose it was CCN-51, correct?”

Servio sighed. “If they really don’t know what they’re planting, then yes. And that’s a problem. The viveros, the intermediarios, they come by selling hybrids—usually CCN-51–and sell them to whoever will buy them. The problem is that the soil should be analyzed, so that farmer knows which cacao variety is best for his plot. Much of the time, the trees fail, and the farmer loses the money.”

I hate to hear this. I wonder now whether Carlos, the man doing the planting in the community I was staying in, had the time to check up on the details for the cacao. I hope he did. And I hope the cacao seedlings, no matter what kind they are, make it, and produce a yield for him.

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Finca Sarita is in San Miguel de Sarampión, located about 20 minutes from Calceta, in the Manabí province of Ecuador.

After resting a bit in my treehouse, which is located up two sets of ladders in a mango tree–a somewhat dizzying yet thrilling height–we make chocolate, artisan-style.

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Servio’s son and daughter get a fire going in an outdoor oven which consists of clay and ashes–the kind used by his family for over a century. Servio puts the beans in a pan with sand, and we toast them for about twenty minutes. After that, we let them cool, go sit at the table, and peel off the husks, chatting the whole time. Then we grind up the beans into a thick paste, like peanut butter, and eat it on bananas ripened on a tree nearby.

Peeling and grinding cacao beans into a chocolate paste from Nacional beans, perfectly fermented, is a flavor experience unlike any I’ve had before. I’m not certain it will be possible to go back to Hershey’s—I’ve already written about the Point of No Return when it comes to Spanish; I think I have reached it when it comes to Chocolate.

Thanks Servio, for the wonderful tour of your farm, and for teaching me about chocolate.

For more information on Nacional cacao and its preservation see:

www.nacionalcacaoconservation.org

www.toakchocolate.com/blogs/news

www.hcpcacao.org  (Heirloom Cacao Preservation)

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Scenes from the Amazon Basin

 I.

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I’m sitting in the corner of a young couple’s dirt-floor home, pondering the homemade grass basket beside me, while watching S— roll up a wad of fresh tobacco and blow blooming clouds of smoke over his brother, who sits on the edge of a bed with his wife and newborn son. I look down into the basket again, see a baseball sized object begin to shift and move slowly under a limp T-shirt.

“What’s that?” I ask, nodding down at the basket.

“La soledad,” is what I hear from S— say, who laughs playfully, and then continues his ceremony. His father was a brujo, a shaman, and I think of this as he waves his hand to spread the smoke. Afterward, as we head back to the bonfire he’s set up for me as a farewell, I ask him if this was a blessing ceremony for the newborn.

“No,” he says with his naturally easy smile. The night is settling around us, and the toads croak in various intervals. “Remember the bird that sings loudly at dusk? My brother is afraid of that bird.”

“Afraid?” I ask, trying to understand. I’d heard this bird often, and it has a loud, distinct call, like that of a loon.

“They say it is a powerful being, that it can perhaps harm a person,” S— answers. “I blow the smoke over him, so that he can go out and hunt again, without fear.”

“I see,” though I don’t, entirely. And I feel silly for thinking, earlier, that he was rolling up the tobacco leaves in a giant cigar for us all to smoke.

“Blowing tobacco is good for taking away fear,” S— says.

“I will try it,” I respond sincerely, because even though I don’t believe that smoke will take away fear, ritual and the placebo effect does.

We sit by a large fire for my farewell gathering, and the eldest in the community, Tio A—, begins to tell me the tale of the Jrijri, the two-mouthed animal spirit that guards the wilderness of the Amazon. I shiver.

After, Tia E— shows me how to dance in the Achuar way. A complicated hopping, small steps, her hands placed firmly on her hips. I cannot get all the little steps in, and lament my poor sense of body rhythm out loud.

Everyone applauds anyway, and we drink chicha, a traditional fermented yucca beverage.

It starts raining, and one of the men informs me, solemnly, that the river is rising, and that I cannot leave the following morning in canoe, as planned.

II.

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I’m walking in the pitch black through the forest with three young children leading me.

I’m walking back from S—’s house, where I’ve just finished eating supper, a meal of boiled eggs, plantains, and yucca, and a fresh heart of palm salad, all served in enormous banana tree leaves. The jungle is loud and large moths and small bats whir above and around our heads. We have no lights on; I simply follow their sure little feet as they easily feel the mud and planks and stones beneath their bare toes. At one point, one of the girls stops, and we look to see two glowing green eyes brightly shining through the foliage beside us. The youngest sibling, a boy just learning to write, strides into the leaves, retrieves the large glow beetle, and puts it into his older sister’s hand. We continue on, without speaking. They do this three times, collecting three Pyphoruses.

One of the girls tries to catch a giant glow moth with her sweater. It swerves and dives too quickly for her heavy cloth net.

III.

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A dog is screaming somewhere, the dust is blowing through the walls of my hut, the microscopic flies are biting me, the air is always on fire. I am planning English lessons.

I ask a couple walking by, who have just returned from the jungle: “What is going on? What is the animal?”

The man explains with an apologetic smile while holding a branch of green plantains over his shoulder, “A dog is dying. It has an incurable disease.”

The woman beside him, carrying a basket on her back supported by a strap slung across her forehead, glances at me while shifting the heavy weight on her back.

“Thank you,” I say, and the two continue on.

An awful screaming, a dog child, for dogs have become nearly human. Late into the night, screaming. My skin prickles with the sounds which do not let my mind rest. I find out the next day it is my neighbor’s dog, and his child won’t let him put the creature out of its misery.

The dog lies on its side on a blanket under the house on stilts. It stops screaming when I approach it.

There is silence by the fourth day, when I leave the community.

IV.

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A scraggly black and white chicken arrives in my hut the first day I arrive, sneezing and snorting. I am afraid it has a disease and keep it outside. But it sneaks in, and when it sees a beetle, it squawks in delight (so I assume) and rushes after it, just like a cliché chicken cartoon, its head bobbing forward.

I laugh hard; I don’t shoo him away again.

His name, naturally, is Pinto. Painted Chicken.

When I discover a colony of tiny golden rice-sized termites growing under the cardboard box I brought most of my food in, I push it aside and let Pinto feast. I watch, mesmerized by the precision of the birds beak, how it can pick up every single tiny termite within a matter of minutes. Every day I make my breakfast, open the door, let Pinto in, and push aside the cardboard box.

How strange when one day there are no termites.

“They found us out, Pinto,” I say to the chicken, and drop a handle of rice kernels on the ground for him.

One day a neighbor says all the chickens are dying.

Over the course of the week, the chickens die. They are lying in feathered heaps around the huts and clapboard houses.

Every morning, however, Pinto arrives, sneezing and snorting, and cleans up whatever insects I find for him in my hut. He begins to sit and prune himself while I read in the afternoons.

One evening I’m reading and out of nowhere the chicken flies up into my lap. He tucks its head into its feathers. When I tentatively pet it, it closes it eyes.
Unexpectedly, I tear up. I don’t let Pinto sit on my lap again.

V.

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Mundeesh

It is dark and the toads have begun to sing, and fire flies are dancing in the night air outside the hut. I can see the moon through the wooden slats that make up the wall of my thatched-roof home.

“Cici, come,” my neighbor C— says to me through my wood slat door. “I have something to show you.” He smile is wide, slightly mischievous.

“OK,” I say, and I get up and follow him, wondering what surprise is in store for me this evening.

We go into his family’s kitchen. In this community, most kitchens are thatched roof huts, and consist of a wooden table with stools, a large fire made from three logs that touch in a triangle shape in the center, where the fire lives. His son is waiting by the long-logged fire, also a smile on his face.

I sit down and wait.

C—picks up a banana leaf and shows me a fresh pile of plump, cream colored grubs. Like those in the movie “The Lion King.” Palm tree grubs. Or, as I find out later: palm weevil larvae.

“Mundeesh,” C— tells me in his language, Achuar. Then, in Spanish: “Gusano. It is a delicacy. They pay lots of money in Quito for this.” He sets the banana leaf on his lap and picks one up. “Do you want to try?”

I stare at the chubby cream-colored grub, the size and look of a very swollen Caucasian adult thumb. It has a dark brownish-red head.

“A delicacy?” I ask, somewhat weakly.

“Yes, try one, if you want,” C— says. “Raw first. Then we will roast them on a spit.” He puts one in his mouth and chews.

I— his son, grabs one and puts it in his mouth.

After watching the young boy finish his, I pick one up. Its skin is thick and leathery, and I can feel a pulpy juice inside. Its shiny beetle head is about the size of a pencil eraser. There are little hairs—grub hairs—springing out from the thick skin. I put it into my mouth and bite down.

Again and again I chew until the skin breaks, and the pulp spreads across my tongue. A slightly sweet insect pulp. I have to spit the skin out after a while, as I am unable to chew it. The head pops under my molars and I hear the crunch, as if I’m chewing on a half-popped corn kernel.

I sit and practice English with C—while we wait for the roasted version of the delicacy. Roasted, it tastes mostly the same, except the pulp is thicker and warm.

I fall asleep that night, thinking of that sweet pulp on my tongue, and dream of cream colored grubs in my belly.

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A Jungle Story: Bugs and a Boa

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A friend pointing out a wandering spider (not as deadly as its cousin the Brazilian Wandering Spider, thank goodness) before killing it.

My Ecuadorian housemate back in Minnesota and I had numerous discussions about the Amazon jungle and what to expect when I went to live there for six weeks.

“There are bugs, Christine,” she told me one night as we were snacking on popcorn in the kitchen. “And they will bite you. All over.”

I remember scoffing playfully. “Yes, there are spiders, scorpions, tailless whip scorpions, moths, butterflies, and other insects in the jungles, but they don’t have clouds of mosquitoes and flies like here in Minnesota.” I was thinking of my time in the coastal jungles of Costa Rica, where bugs were like large animals to watch and enjoy rather than swat away.

My roommate Chela has lived in jungles for extended periods of time. She listened, and then responded, somewhat gravely: “Yes, but there are tiny bugs that bite and sometimes carry parasites that get into the skin. You must wear repellent, and you should ask before you go if they have this parasite in the community. You will need to use good netting at night.”

“Chagas?” I asked. The travel doctor had told me not to Google that one, so I didn’t. (Still have not).

“Yes, that, but also Leishmaniasis,” she said.

Leishmaniasis. The open ulcer on the arm of an American woman I met years ago came to mind immediately. She lived in the green jeweled Caribbean coast of Costa Rica,  where she and her husband cultivated cacao, and made delicious chocolate. She’d called it “jungle disease.”

We talked into the night, back and forth, about what to expect in the Amazon. About bugs and parasites. I felt fine with all of them, knowing if I ended up contracting a parasite I could get treatment afterward. We only stopped when the subject broached snakes, and especially, the fer-de-lans, or, in Spanish, the equis.

“Well,” I sighed. “Let’s not talk about that one.” The ultimate pit viper, they call it.

“You’ll wear rubber boots,” she said.

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Jungle roommate.

The snake arrived the third night in my thatched roof hut. I was just stepping into my hut after using my latrine, still pondering the tailless whip scorpions that lived on its inner wall, an arachnid couple with sizeable but harmless pedipalps and thread like front legs that float and taste the air around them for prey.

Two moving orbs near the front of my hut, in the roof, reflecting my headlamp’s weak beam, caught my attention. I turned on the lightbulb (yes, I had a light bulb hanging in my hut!) and to my alarm, beheld a moderately-sized snake steadily coiling about one of the log beams holding up the roof.

I stared at it for several minutes, and once it noticed me, it created a “U” shape on the beam and rested its head in it, and observed me in return.

I didn’t know whether it was venomous, but its head did look somewhat bulgy on either side, which indicated it might be a viper. Two options came to mind: a) I could leave it be, get into my tent, and hope it went on its way, or b) I could pick up the machete sitting on the table next to me, swing and chop it half.

My adrenaline prompted me to grab the machete, but my brain said: But Cici, you don’t know how snakes react. What if it lunges at your face?

Though it was very late, I walked down the path to my neighbor’s house and, regrettably, woke him up. He came back with me, groggy, but aware that a foreigner like me needed assistance with such things as snake visitors in the night.

“Did you kill it?” he asked me.

“No, no,” I said. “I don’t have much experience with snakes, and I didn’t know how it would react if I approached it.”

We went inside and he walked calmly up to the snake. “It’s a boa.” He turned, relaxed.

“Ah!” I cried in relief. “A pet, then.”

He chuckled and left, and I went to bed.

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A giant carapa tree.

Sr. Boa killed all the bats, one by one, every other night between 9:00 and 10:00pm. I would be sitting at my table, reading, preparing English lessons, and glance up to see him sitting there patiently in a spring-form “S” shape just outside of the noisy bats’ nest. Quite frankly, when I saw him strangling his first victim, I was glad. While I don’t mind bats, and appreciate the fact they eat insects, I didn’t like them living in my hut—they pooped on my things and screeched nonstop sometimes, disrupting my ability to sleep, read, and think.

And when the bats were gone, I never saw Sr. Boa again.

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Living in Mashien, Ecuador, was a fully-rounded experience, challenging but rare. I will always be grateful to the community for inviting me in and sharing their way of life with me. If you are interested in learning about volunteering in this community, please contact Napo Mashian at fundacion.ikiam@gmail.com. The community hosts volunteer English teachers and those who have skills and interest in developing ecotourism projects.

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In next week’s post, I’ll share more experiences of the jungle in the form of disparate scenes, without explanation, to give you a sense of what I experienced—the rugged adventure, the flora and fauna, and some of the discomfort that comes with being in a new place and culture.