Sunday, March 2, 2014

Day 3 (pt 2) - The Tree

After arriving at Nueva Israel that afternoon, we were all eager to get some work done before sundown. The canoes pulled up at the base of a 15 foot high mudbank that lead to the village. We grabbed our gear and struggled up the washed out steps that had been crudely carved in the mud. The village proper was about 50 yards through some overgrown grass.

Keep this grass and the fact that I was effectively in shorts in mind later.

We met Matt Richardson and a few local Shuar pastors that had come down a day or two ahead of us to prep the jobsite. Our team was divided among the three closest buildings. A Lukas Serban, Nick Serban IV, Steve Kennedy, and Segundo (Joil's head contractor) stretched their hammocks in the cover of the one room schoolhouse. My hammock was tucked in the corner of a small community building with a central enclosed room and one open side. I shared the space with Nick Serban III (Our pastor), Matt Richardson (Joil's Missionary Associate), Francisco, Umberto, Dany, and Johnny Rocket (All Ecuadoreans traveling with us, Johnny Rocket being the son of Umberto. He earned that nickname from someone in our group on first introduction.) The rest of our group (Joil, Jonathan Burkett, Jonathan Dunn, and Todd Campbell) stayed in the school teacher's home as the teacher was away on break. All of the buildings were made from rough hewn planks and beams with corrugated tin roofs. We began to get our bearings once we'd each established our bug free sleeping arrangements.

The village itself consisted of two large fields divided by a 15 ft wide, 10 ft deep gulley. There was a communal open, thatched roof pavilion that served as kitchen and dining area, the three buildings previously mentioned, large open pavilion built by the government at the far end of the second field, and the church. The resident families each had an acre or two of land, walled off by various flora, which usually housed one hut and occasionally an out building or chicken coop. Scrawny chickens, turkeys, and stray dogs wandered throughout.There was a community toilet (read outhouse, but actually had a porcelain seat) built by the government in the center of the village, but it had never been used because of its poor placement. The actual community toilet was a small structure about 4 or 5 feet high with old trash bags for walls. The hole itself was just a 1 ft by 5 in gap notched out of one of the half dozen floorboards that covered the waste. If a user wasn't careful, chiggers were waiting to for anyone who sank too low to the hole. This area was to be avoided at all costs, though our unusual diets caused some members to visit very regularly.

There were two main things that brought us to this village plus a few small projects we'd get to as we had time. The first was the gully. Even in the dry season a small stream ran through it, creating quicksand along the bottom. The locals had laid a couple thin boards across the bottom at one point, but even these were regularly washed out and completely inaccessible during the rainy season. When the rains came, the village was literally cut in two by the flooded gully. The second was water, or rather, the lack of water. The villagers hiked about a quarter of a mile to a freshwater stream sourced by a nearby spring. They were fortunate to have even the small flow this provided, but they still gathered their drinking water about 10 ft upstream of where they did their laundry and bathed, not to mention the animals that regularly used it.

Fortunately another mission team had come about 3 or 4 years ago and installed a few basic water pumps. Unfortunately, the weak plastic pumps couldn't handle the load of their 4in pvc pipes. They broke within a week of installation and the village was immediately without access to uncontaminated water again. 

That first afternoon a few of us assembled the metal frame for the bridge, which had been prefabricated in manageable pieces back in Sucua. Another group started assembling and setting the metal frame for the new cast iron pump we'd brought. A third group began to dismantle and chop down a tree that a group of conga ants had taken as their own. All the while the villagers began to interact with us more and more. A great deal of laughter, joy, and cooperation can be shared across language barriers. The work was going relatively smoothly and quickly and we all were happy with the first results.

I'd missed the memo about the conga ants ( and thought we were just chopping down the tree because it was in the way. When I stepped too close to the base of the tree, it didn't matter that Francisco, who was running the chainsaw, was yelling in Spanish, I knew to get out of the way. You should read the wikipedia article about the conga sting. Without available medical care, anyone stung would likely be useless for the remainder of the trip. 

Fortunately the concrete footers for the bridge had been set by the team that came before us. We would need, however, to gather the wood we'd use to deck the top. This turned out to be a far more harrowing tale than one might expect in the middle of a forest. We had been warned that the tree in question was a bit of a hike away, but we had no idea the magnificent size of the tree itself or the heavy hardwood planks. We hiked about a mile over the fresh water source, up a hill covered in shoulder high grass, down over a couple more muddy holes, and finally got to to a tree that must have been 4 or 5 feet in diameter at the base. It was pure, furniture quality mahogany that was worth a small fortune back in the states. Any question about why a closer tree couldn't be taken for our purposes was immediately put out of our minds. Clearly they'd been working this tree for a while, but there were still several buildings worth of planks to be had.

The most incredible part of the lumberjacking had to be that Francisco, our resident saw expert, only had a chainsaw to work with. He would take a bit of string dipped in burnt motor oil, eyeball out a plank, mark it with the string, and then freehand carved mill quality planks with his chainsaw. There were two plank sizes, one about a 2x12x12 and another about a 4x12x12. The 4x's were close to 50 or 60 lbs, which wasn't so terrible in and of itself except for the fact that they were 12 ft long and we had to hike a mile through the bush to get back to the village. A few of us, myself included, only made it about halfway before collapsing from exhaustion. Jonathan Dunn and Todd Campbell, however, showed us all up and went back for more.

By the time we'd all made it back to the bridge, the sun was just starting to set and it was time to call it a day. A few of the guys went and bathed in the river. I hung back to make some notes in my journal. Segundo was kind enough to point out, in very limited spanglish mind you, that I was writing very slowly.

Our dinner could not come quickly enough. We'd packed enough MRE's (military surplus meals for the field) to carry us, but the villagers were insistent on feeding us every chance they got. Our welcome meal started with some fresh banana leaf tablecloths laid over the crude, long picnic table in the eating pavilion. Boiled yuca pieces and plantains were laid out along the length of the table. Aji, the only condiment, and one we'd come to know and love, was passed along for each of us to dole out a portion. Joil would subtly bring out a hidden bottle of soy sauce to flavor his yuca, which desperately needed it. Once most of us were seated, the Chicha was passed around, much to the chagrin of all of us. The bowl would come to each of us and we knew what it was and equally knew that, for hospitality's sake, we couldn't refuse it. The main course of rice and miscellaneous chicken parts soon followed. The luck among us got a breast or a leg, while the unlucky would get some inedible organ that we'd slide to the children around us. Most of the bones would be tossed to the dogs.

Food Guide:
Aji - a) a very small, very spicy pepper b) A condiment made from grinding said pepper with a very coarse salt to make a salty, grainy, spicy paste
Chicha - A drink made from a time honored process of the village matriarchs chewing on yuca (or occasionally plantains) and spitting it into a gourd. This masticated yuca and spit would be left to ferment. This fermented mixture would then usually be cut with some water. The alcohol in the Chicha would kill off anything in the water and make it safe to drink. It is a milky white color with occasional starchy chunks. It tastes like brewer's yeast with a splash of sour milk.

After our meal, we all retired to the first night in our hammocks. While I was fairly uncomfortable sleeping in a mosquito netted hammock, not much would stop me from sleeping through that night. I only remember waking up once to visit a nearby tree and then crawl into the light sleeping bag liner that served as my only protection against the bitter 60 degree cold of darkest night. Our adventures would continue in the morning.

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